Enabling Excellence through Equity: Lessons Learned

By: Tricia Seifert

The image conveys moving from one water-based space to another. On the left is a picture of a rushing waterfall; on the right, waves washing up on the beach.

At the closure of the “Enabling Excellence through Equity” conference, the presenter shared the famous Winnie the Pooh quote from A.A. Milne in the right-hand photo above; “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come find you. You have to go to them sometimes.” I left the waterfalls, forests, and mountains of Montana to look up at the red bellied black snake hillside of the Woolyungah (the five islands), nestling my toes in the sand on the beach in Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. This wasn’t vacation — I was at a conference — but when people push your thinking and share ideas that ignite your imagination, it is a creative, generative holiday.

I spend the last week discussing how higher education can:

  • Widen participation from equity groups (Indigenous students; students from a Non-English speaking background; students with a disability; students from low SES backgrounds; regional and remote students)
  • Partner with schools, families, and communities to foster a higher education-going culture
  • Encourage and support students to see themselves as ‘uni material’ and develop necessary skills through robust enabling programs
  • Assist students as they transition to higher education and then as they enter the workforce

These were the central streams of the conference presented by the Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia (@TherealEPHEA) and National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia. I am so thankful for the opportunity to leave my forest and learn from others in theirs. I wish to share some of what I take-away from the experience.

Take-Away #1: Widening participation in higher education is no longer a social justice imperative but an economic one.

Jobs of the future will require higher-order, complex, and critical thinking skills. There is a raft of evidence to this fact. I often cite the Center for Education and the Workforce report detailing the need for education beyond a school credential / high school diploma. But I was fascinated to learn of the 2019 study conducted by Deloitte Access Economics that found:

“social inclusion plays a critical role in lifting Australia’s living standards through increased productivity in the workplace, improved employment and health outcomes, reducing the cost of social services and by spreading the benefits of economic growth across society.”

Although I find it highly unfortunate that widening educational opportunity to groups historically under-served by higher education requires an economic justification to motivate policymakers to take action, I was excited to learn of the government provided Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program funding and support of the National Center for Student Equity in Higher Education (@NCSEHE). At a time when the government has re-instituted caps on the overall number of places for university study, HEPPP funding is not a panacea. That said, I applaud the overt support of efforts to bring higher education into schools and bridge what is often two silos.

Take-Away #2: Language is power; how we convey an idea has reverberating repercussions.  

This is the time in the conference where I had to do the most cross-cultural decoding of meaning. The conference organizer welcomed delegates by telling her personal story of higher education and shared she started her higher education journey through an ‘enabling program’. I was fortunate to have my friend and colleague, Sam Avitaia from the University of Wollongong-Bega, as my cultural translator and I asked her at morning tea what is enabling education.

As I grappled to understand this new concept, I kept looking for the American equivalent. In some ways, it may be akin to what we call ‘remedial education,’ which in its most generous term is referred to as ‘developmental education’. But here’s the distinction, remedial/developmental education is predicated on what students lack. There is something deficient about the students’ preparation and the university is called upon to fill in the deficiency.

After attending several enabling sessions at the conference, I came to understand that ‘enabling education’ comes from a different starting place. Rather than situating the student as deficient and in need of remediation, the student is seen as completely whole, with promise, potential, and capacity. The enabling education program is designed to assist students in calling upon their strengths in realizing their goals.

Dr. Leanne Holt, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy) at Macquarie University, also drove home the point of language. She shared how she was “not keen on support” and called on the delegates to re-frame their work as ‘student success.’ Again, ‘support’ as a noun suggests what students lack; what the university must shore up. ‘Success’ recognizes students’ capacities and strengths and places universities in the role of developing, fostering, enhancing, ‘supporting’ student capacity toward success.

Take-Away #3: Make the implicit, explicit. Decode the hidden curriculum

Sally Kift (@KiftSally) kicked off the conference with the opening keynote. It was a policy and practice Tour de Force. Amidst my furious writing of policy documents to download, she returned over and over to the fact that First Year Experience 3.0 must be whole-of-institution, shared responsibility for “transition pedagogy” (Kift, Nelson & Clarke, 2010).

Too often, students are left to arrive at university with their secret decoder ring to make sense of higher education’s ‘hidden curriculum’. However, for those who are First in Family (or first generation) to attend higher education, they have no such ring. These students must figure out #HowToUni (my favorite hashtag of the whole conference) on their own. Not only is this expectation of first-year students unfair, it is quite simply, wholly inequitable.

Drawing and extending from Dr. Kift’s presentation, I offer the following. If we are to realize the promise of widening participation, institutions must:

  1. Manage the transition by unpacking the hidden roles and inviting students to conceive of their own vision of success
  2. Acknowledge the diversity of its entering/commencing students and recognize these students come with different forms of capital that must be engaged as students master their new ‘student role’
  3. Design curricula with intention. Imagine curricula that was coherent, scaffolded, relevant, and organized in such a way that students received timely feedback on their performance. If higher education academic and professional staff purport to have this expertise, then students rightfully should expect them to employ it effectively.
  4. Create curricula that call on students to be teachers and learners with peers, academic and professional staff, industry, and with their families & communities. Learning is a social enterprise. We teach when we are engaged with another. We learn, similarly, in community.

As I reflect on an amazing conference, I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared and learned with equity and enabling practitioners and researchers from across Australasia. I come back to the Maori phrase written three times in my journal:

he tangata       he tangata       he tangata – it is people.

‘It is people’ (he tangata) is the answer to “what is the most important thing?” It is people who have spurred me to cultivate a rich sense of curiosity and inquiry. It is people, their possibilities and promise, that move me to teach.

Tricia Seifert is Head of the Department of Education at Montana State University and Associate Professor in the Adult & Higher Education program. She also curates the Supporting Student Success blog. If you wish to guest write for the blog, please leave a comment below, tweet @TriciaSeifert, or email tricia.seifert@montana.edu.

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