‘Being first’ thesis wins prestigious award

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Dr Sally Patfield from the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre has received the prestigious Ray Debus Award for Doctoral Research in Education at the 2019 Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Conference.

Portrait of Dr Sally Patfield
Dr Sally Patfield

Dr Patfield was awarded the accolade for her PhD research which examined the educational aspirations of school students who would be the first in their families to pursue higher education.

“In Australia, the odds of being enrolled in higher education are around two times greater for young people with a parent or carer who already holds a university-level qualification themselves. This means that universities are still far from a level playing field in being open and accessible to all Australians,” Dr Patfield said.

“My study shows how hard it can be for some young people to imagine going to university when they have no-one to talk to who’s been there before. From as early as Year 3, prospective first-in-family students are less likely to aspire to university, a trend which continues until the end of secondary school.”

“Importantly, however, I also found that parents, carers, other family members, teachers, and a wide variety of people in our community all play a powerful role in shaping and nurturing young people’s futures.”

“Political leaders must stop blaming young people and their families for not being ‘aspirational enough’, and start to genuinely consider how we can achieve equity of access to higher education.”

Teachers and Teaching Research Centre Director, Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, who co-supervised the thesis, said the award recognised the importance of Dr Patfield’s research and its contribution to education policy and practice.

“Equity in the higher education sector is hugely important, and governments and universities have put a great deal of work into addressing outcomes for target equity groups. Dr Patfield’s exploration of the aspirations of would be first-in-family students highlights an additional equity group that needs to be considered in policy discussions,” Professor Gore said.

Dr Patfield has more than 15 years’ experience working in education. Her thesis, "On ‘Being First’: Reconsidering Australian Higher Education Equity Policy Through a Comprehensive Analysis of the Aspirations of Prospective First-In-Family Students” was lauded by examiners for the strength and clarity of its argument as well as the significant contribution it will make in its field.

“Winning this award is incredibly special. I am humbled and proud to have my work recognised at a national level, and I hope it can contribute to public discourse on higher education equity policy,” Dr Patfield said.

Presented annually since 1989, the Ray Debus Award honours the memory of AARE’s founding member for his passionate commitment and contribution to educational research.

It is the third time in the past four years that a University of Newcastle researcher has been awarded the Ray Debus Award for best doctoral thesis in education, with Professor John Lester and Dr Kristen Cohen collecting the accolade in 2017 and 2016, respectively. With 40 universities in Australia, each able to nominate one thesis per year, the quality of doctoral training in education at the University of Newcastle is resoundingly clear.

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