Massaging desire: disadvantaged students' aspirations for higher education

Year: 2009

Author: Gale, Trevor, Parker, Stephen, Tranter, Deborah

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Australia is in an invidious position. Having ridden the resources boom up and now down, it now finds that it has fallen back from the OECD pack in the number of its young adults (25-34 year olds) with higher education qualifications. This, just at the moment when it needs more if it is to remain competitive in the global knowledge economy and when economic modelling predictions are that from 2010 demand in Australia for knowledge workers will exceed their supply. As in the UK, the US and several European nations, the policy imperative is now to convince more young people that they should go to university. In particular, the plan is to reach them early, when they are just beginning to form their ideas about their futures. If the plan is to succeed it will require attracting to university people from population groups who in the past have been grossly under-represented in higher education: Indigenous peoples, people from regional and remotes areas, and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. These are the groups, particularly the latter, whom are often said to lack aspiration (for higher education). Yet aspiration defined in these terms is narrow in that it tends to serve the interests of one (dominant) cultural group.

This paper provides a case study of educationally disadvantaged groups and of enlarging their 'capacity to aspire' (Appadurai 2004) to higher education. It first explores the self-serving bifurcation of aspiration by the dominant and its outworkings in the context of Australian higher education (and education more broadly). It then considers how we might think differently about the capacity of the educationally disadvantaged and marginalized in society to aspire to university. Informed by Appadurai's (2004) conception of aspirational capacity and drawing on the case study data, the paper concludes that nurturing this cultural capacity can be achieved through students' early engagement in real-world debate, contest, inquiry and critical participation.

The paper draws on survey data of 26 Australian universities reporting on 59 'interventions' or programs operated by these universities in the compulsory and early years of schooling, with the express purpose of widening and increasing these students' later participation in higher education. Data is also drawn from semi-structured interviews with participants (program directors and students) in six of these programs and from accompanying documentation. Survey data is presented in graphs and tables, while discourse and content analyses are undertaken of the interview data and documents.