Increasing the percentage of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds engaging in higher education is a focus of the current Australian government, partly as a response to the Review of Australian Higher Education (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent & Scales, 2008). This is also the case for other governments internationally, including the United Kingdom (UK). Experiences in the UK over recent years have demonstrated that access alone does not guarantee retention or success for low SES students. Evidence suggests that there are strategies which can positively impact on the retention and success of this group. These include: a friendly and supportive institutional climate; support leading up to and during the first year of enrolment; formative assessment practices in the early phase of programs; learning support that addresses academic literacy and digital learning.
At the University of Newcastle Australia, which already surpasses government targets for low SES students, a multidisciplinary group of researchers are working to build the capacity of such students and the staff who support them. The goal of their project is to develop initiatives that will improve the experiences of students in three broad areas: academic literacy, technology and resilience. An exploratory descriptive study is being conducted in conjunction with the project. As part of this, separate focus groups of low SES students, students from higher SES groups and academic staff have been convened. The aim of student focus groups was to determine the perspectives of low SES and other students with regard to the three focus areas of the project. Focus groups of academics examined the academics' awareness around and perceptions of low SES students, and the practices they implemented or recommended to support these students. Here we present initial findings from both student and academic focus groups.