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Fellowship examines university equity

Australia is regarded internationally as a leader in widening participation to higher education.

Yet there is still some way to go to increase the participation in university study by people from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, claims Deakin’s equity expert Dr Nadine Zacharias.

After seven years in management, Dr Nadine Zacharias is set to take a break from her role as Director of Equity and Diversity at Deakin University.

She has just been awarded one of three national Equity Fellowships for 2016 that aim to improve university access – so that the benefits of a university education are shared more equally across all classes and ethnic groups.

The three fellowships have been funded by Australia’s Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP), through the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University.

“Higher education is key to people from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving their potential. While progress has been made, there’s more to be done,” noted NCSEHE Director, Professor Sue Trinidad.

Over the next 12 months, Dr Zacharias’ Fellowship aims to understand how the HEPPP was operationalised by universities and to what extent the vision of a more equitable Australian higher education system was realised through the program.

The HEPPP program was introduced in 2010 to support Australian universities to improve access for diverse learners.

Dr Zacharias will investigate the differences in approach and outcomes within Australian universities – providing an evidence-based understanding of the most successful approaches in terms of whether the HEPPP is enabling systemic change across all universities.

The project will make an important contribution to the policy conversation on achieving greater equity of diverse students accessing and succeeding at university.

Originally from Germany, Dr Zacharias first came to Australia through an international exchange program, which led to a Masters in Business Administration, followed by a PhD scholarship in Business Management, focussing on social justice in the workplace.

“This fellowship brings together my interests in social justice, business practice and public policy,” she said.

“Gaining a PhD scholarship, receiving an extended period of paid parental leave, to care for my daughter two years ago, and now this Fellowship have been three great privileges in my career.”

Dr Zacharias will focus her research on how universities responded to the national equity program, in terms of institutional strategy and practice.

“Having a strong commitment to equity across the university and being located in a regional setting have helped at Deakin, but we are seeing indications that culture and leadership make a big difference to the success of individual universities.”

She explained that university aspirations tend to be established at a young age and Deakin’s Engagement and Access Program (DEAP) has been very successful in building students’ awareness that university is desirable and achievable.

The program involves 40 partner schools, including 10 primary schools, in Melbourne, Geelong and the Barwon South Western Region.

Deakin’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander said that Dr Zacharias’s project goes “to the heart of a critical issue for the sector – bridging the gap between policy and practice to achieve a more equitable Australian Higher Education system.”

“It will enable us to better understand how equity policy in Australia is implemented, what works and why – a project that’s important for Deakin and for the sector,” said Professor den Hollander.

“It is also particularly timely. Since the Bradley Review of Higher Education (2008), there have been a number of factors affecting patterns of access and participation for students from equity groups, including deregulation and shifting community beliefs about the nature and value of university education.”

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