Setting the scene for change: Activating networks in the university labyrinth

Year: 2012

Author: Barrie, Simon, Bell, Amani, Cairnduff, Annette, Teague, Mary

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


As an elite research-intensive university, the University of Sydney faces some particular challenges in widening participation (Hall 2011). Of our undergraduate intake in 2011, 60% came from independent and selective schools, primarily from northern and eastern Sydney. Drawing on the research that shows that a network approach is effective for capacity building (Holt et al. 2011), we have established the Widening Participation Scholars Network (WPSN). The WPSN is designed to bring together and support staff with an interest in widening participation. One of the aims of the WPSN is to foster and further enhance an inclusive teaching culture that values diversity, while maintaining standards in an institution that sometimes characterises itself more in terms of academic competition and elitism. Moving away from a 'deficit' conception of students and/or the university as problematic, our approach is informed by Devlin's (2011) call for a 'joint venture' between students and institutions.

The WPSN is a collaboration between the University's Institute for Teaching and Learning and the Social Inclusion Unit, and as joint managers of the network, we work together to develop the capacity of the WPSN to lead curriculum renewal and influence the adoption of an inclusive teaching culture and practices. The WPSN currently has 192 members, both academic and professional staff, many of whom are involved in implementing 37 projects funded through an internal Widening Participation Grants scheme. We provide targeted professional development for the WPSN, promote members and project outcomes, and we have developed resources, exemplars and principles based on existing work and on WPSN project results.

An evaluation of the effectiveness of the WPSN was conducted using surveys, critical reflections and final project reports. Our presentation will report on the evaluation data and consider further enhancements and applications of this network capacity building and cultural change approach to supporting widening participation in elite universities.

Devlin M (2011). Bridging socio-cultural incongruity: conceptualising the success of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. Studies in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2011.6133991

Hall M (2011). Inequality and higher education: marketplace or social justice? Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

Holt D, Palmer S & Challis D (2011). Changing perspectives: teaching and learning centres' strategic contributions to academic development in Australian higher education, International Journal for Academic Development 16, 5-17.