The University of Newcastle, Australia

Enabling Approaches to Improving Access and Transitions to University: Pathways Program Design and Evaluation

Analysing taken-for-granted assumptions and unrecognised historical habits is critical for maintaining relevancy and achieving more equitable systems.

Anna Bennett Highlight Image

Dr Anna Bennett works to identify the underlying powerful, but often ‘invisible’, assumptions that continue enduring problems and inequities in higher education. Identifying and disrupting these assumptions and habits is the goal of her research.

Dr Bennett believes we have a responsibility to put at the forefront of education the needs of the people they serve - to provide for them the types of programs and experiences they value. Programs and evaluation therefore need to be designed in highly responsive ways. Challenging outdated and socio-culturally biased assumptions at broader systematic and everyday levels is critical for ensuring that programs do not exclude and serve only small cohorts of students already more advantaged.

“Inclusion, diversity and responsiveness need to be front-and-centre of education and central to the responsive design and evaluation of it” Dr Bennett said.

“There are so many variables in people's backgrounds, contexts and destinations, and this changes considerably over time. Therefore, it is critical for us to appreciate this diversity, rather than impose 'one-size-fits all' structures. Continuous (re)design and evaluation processes enable us to ensure that learning experiences into, through and beyond an individual's education are engaging and meaningful".

Dr Bennett has led research on perceptions and experiences of capability, pace and time in higher education and their impact on diverse groups of students, including students from regional and rural areas. In a recent study, Capability Belonging and Equity in Higher Education (2015), Dr Bennett and colleagues found that there are serious consequences to deeply held, widespread assumptions and related stereotypes about who belongs and is capable in higher education. “Our notion of what constitutes capability, talent and potential is often very limiting for many students because we do not consider the wider impacts of socio-political and economic forces, students' broader relationships, locations, and cultural backgrounds. If we understand that capability is continuously developed in relation to context and that it can be nurtured in ways that value the wonderful individuality of each student, we can then become capable of improving student outcomes.” Dr Bennett said.

“We need to build responsive frameworks to serve our diverse populations" she added.

Evidence of Impact

Dr Bennett explains that evidence collected through a major national study she recently led shows that the most effective access and equity programs are student and stakeholder-centred and context-specific. Conducted with colleagues from the University of Melbourne and La Trobe University, the Equity Initiatives in Australian Higher Education study was commissioned by the Australian Government and identifies initiatives that provide evidence they are effective, from school outreach through to postgraduate programs.

“It was the first national review to capture effective initiatives across Australian higher education. Importantly, the study also shows that rigorous evaluation is very important for ensuring that money invested is money well spent” Dr Bennett said.

Dr Bennett is Director of the Pathways and Academic Learning Support (PALS) Centre at the University of Newcastle.

“I am proud of the outstanding outcomes from our rich history of programs that have provided 60,000 students with access to enabling education for 45 years, as well as our English language and International learning support programs and services which are award winning and sector leading,” said Dr Bennett.