Supporting HDR success: Identifying key influences that impact successful and timely completions by low-SES Higher Degree by Research (HDR) students studying at regional universities

Year: 2019

Author: Weuffen, Sara, Charchar, Fadi, Fotinatos, Nina, Harmes, Marcus, Watson, Rob

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Higher Degree by Research students (HDRs) studying at regional universities tend to stem from low-SES backgrounds, are often first-in-family to undertake tertiary studies, more likely to be involved in longer hours of paid work, and therefore complete degrees on a part-time basis. Far from being deficient, or possessing a limited capacity to undertake higher education study because of their situational shortcomings, low-SES regional students are often “hardworking, high achieving, and determined to succeed” (Devlin & McKay, 2017, p. 359). Given that the Australian Government allocates $1.03 billion in funding annually for tuition offset, scholarships, and ancillary costs of HDR research, a successful postgraduate experience for low-SES HDRs enrolled at regional universities is essential for an economical, ethical, and robust education system. However, data indicates an existing problem of significantly higher rates of student attrition from HDR programs at regional universities (30.2%), compared to metropolitan counterparts. Assumptions around retention, based on SES / regionality status alone, mask the complex and nuanced life-work-study conditions experienced by low-SES HDRs, which in turn shapes their interactions with supervisors, and research staff; simplistic causality prevents identification of initiatives / factors influencing successful completions / experiences; and narrows understanding of career decision making post-candidature. To date, there does not exist a comprehensive study that provides detailed analysis and explanation of factors influencing low-SES HDR successful completions at Australian regional universities.

In this presentation, we discuss early-stage data from a cross-institutional case study between Federation University Australia (FedUni) and the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) that pinpoints high attrition peaks throughout candidature, and identify enabling factors for HDR successful completions. Guided by a poststructuralist theoretical framework and employing Kahu’s (2013) conceptual framework of engagement, antecedents and consequences model, we explore common candidature experiences across the two research sites, to test whether a link exists between admission, induction, and progression practices, and HDRs’ successful completions. We anticipate that our presentation will invite additional dialogue about research-informed, equitable, and practical recommendations that may be implemented by regional universities to economically and ethically impact institutional admission to completion processes positively.