Widening the Participation of Disadvantaged Students in Engineering

Widening the Participation of Disadvantaged Students in Engineering

Scott Sciffer (The University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia) and Mahsood Shah (The University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/IJQAETE.2015010101
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The University of Newcastle, Australia has a long history of providing enabling education which provides access and opportunity for students to participate in undergraduate education. The enabling programs at the University allow higher school leavers, and mature aged adults to prepare for undergraduate degrees. Students who complete enabling education at the University undertake undergraduate studies in various disciplines including engineering. This paper outlines the extent to which enabling programs have played an important role in widening the participation of disadvantaged students in engineering disciplines. The different levels of academic preparedness of students in enabling programs and barriers faced in learning require effective strategies for teaching and engaging students in learning. The paper outlines the strategy used in teaching an advanced level of mathematics to the diverse groups of students to prepare them for success in first year undergraduate engineering programs. While research on undergraduate engineering education is significant, limited studies have been undertaken on enabling or university preparatory programs and their impact in various professions.
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Traditionally access to higher education was based on the academic performance of students in high schools or post-secondary education and work experience for mature aged adults. In recent years governments in a number of countries have introduced policies to widen the participation of students with a focus on increasing the access and participation of disadvantaged students. Many countries have recognised the importance of education in improving life trajectory and creating greater equity of opportunity (Johansson & Hӧjer, 2012). In Australia, the government has set a target to achieve 20 percent of higher education enrolments at the undergraduate level with people from a low socio economic background (Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, pp. 13). The additional funding of universities to open the access and participation of disadvantaged students has resulted in universities lowering the entry criteria for students to access undergraduate education; partnership between universities and public and private vocational colleges with clear articulation and credit arrangements; engagement between universities and high schools; and strengthened the role of existing University pathway colleges or opening of brand new University pathway colleges with a focus on offering foundation and associate degree programs (Bennett et al, 2012; Shah and Nair, 2013; Trounson, 2010). Another alternative pathway emerging in Australian higher education is enabling or tertiary preparatory programs (Goode et al, in press). Enabling programs are preparatory courses, which on successful completion, qualifies students for entry into various undergraduate programs. It includes student characteristics such as recent school leavers who have either completed the Higher School Certificate (HSC) or dropped out in senior years of secondary education; mature aged adults above 20 years of age; and students from Indigenous, low socio-economic, first in family, non-English speaking, and refugee backgrounds.

Enabling programs at the University of Newcastle, Australia are playing an important role in providing access and opportunity for many disadvantaged students to access undergraduate level education in disciplines such as nursing, teacher education, social work, and engineering. In undergraduate engineering disciplines, enabling students predominantly choose civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering. In the last five years (2008-2013) an average of 25 enabling completers enrolled in engineering programs each year. An important social and economic contribution of enabling programs is bridging the skills shortage in regional communities that have struggled to recruit and retain professionals in health, education and engineering professions (Burgess and Relf, forthcoming).

The goal of achieving increased numbers and greater diversity of students gaining higher education poses challenges for many higher education providers (Cocks & Stokes, 2013). On the one hand, there is an expectation that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are given the opportunity to participate in tertiary education; on the other, there is a government mandate for maintaining standards of academic quality (Shah et al, 2011; Whiteford et al, 2013). There is also an onus on education providers to ensure that students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds receive adequate support whilst undertaking tertiary study so that they have real possibilities of succeeding (Devlin et al, 2012). Although it is argued that low socioeconomic status is not an indicator of intelligence or aptitude (James et al, 2010), students from low socioeconomic backgrounds face significant challenges in higher education, including, having the appropriate literacy skills and ability to cope with the complex University system and academic expectations (Cuthill & Jansen, 2013). A study on the academic performance of students in an Australian University showed that low socioeconomic students tend to carry on with their program even if they have academic difficulties, compared to traditional students with fewer difficulties who are more likely to withdraw (Grebennikov and Skaines, 2008).

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