As a result of the Australian government's policy agenda to widen participation in higher education (Australian Government, 2009), universities are aiming to increase the numbers of students from non-traditional backgrounds, including students who are from low-SES backgrounds and first in their family to attend university. As a result, there is a need to understand the experience of university of such students in order to better support them. Widening participation is generally accepted as a social and economic good (Argy 2006) and as such is not at odds with the broader aims of most institutions. Nonetheless, there remains a challenge for higher education institutions with regard to the support that is required, particularly for universities that have not historically catered for such students.
With this in mind, a project was undertaken in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney to investigate the first year experience of students, particularly the reasons that contribute to students considering or choosing to withdraw from university. This is an area that has been difficult for institutions to gather data and links to a broader aim to find out more about students who are first in their family to attend university and their perceptions of inclusion and exclusion.
Previous research through an online survey on the first year experience already undertaken in 2010 indicated there was a significant number of students (31%) who identified themselves as first in their family to attend university. Such students are considered to have an additional burden in adjusting to university because of the differing cultural capital they have in comparison to traditional students (Luzeckyj et al., 2011). In addition, a significant number of students (36%) indicated they had considered deferring or discontinuing their study during or at the end of first year. These results were significantly greater than official institutional statistics on overall attrition rates and enrolments of low SES-students in the Faculty.
The paper will report on the current research project in which data was obtained through an online survey and focus groups of current first year students. By referring to the previous research carried out in 2010 and through a deeper analysis of the issues of attrition, inclusion and exclusion, implications for policy and practice will be identified. This is seen as a particular responsibility for a Faculty that represents professions whose missions are to promote and model social inclusion and social justice.