Aspirations for Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education and the blog posts are written by Sophie Emanuel. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

The main themes in the aspirations-related literature are:

  • All student groups explored (low SES, regional/rural/remote, indigenous) generally have high aspirations for higher education (James, 2002; Alloway et al., 2004; Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009; Dalley-Trim & Alloway, 2010; Bok, 2010; Bowdern & Dougherty, 2010, 2012; Wrench et al., 2013; Gale et al., 2013; Reid & McCallum, 2014; Graham, Van Bergen & Sweller, 2015; Fleming & Grace, 2015a, 2015b);
  • Females are more likely than males to aspire to higher education (James, 2002; Alloway, 2004; Bowdern & Dougherty, 2012; Gale et al., 2013; Gore, 2014);
  • High SES students are more likely than their low SES counterparts to aspire to higher education (James, 2001, 2002; Marjoribanks, 2005; Bowdern & Dougherty, 2010, 2012; Gore et al., 2014);
  • Ethnic groups/ Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) students are more likely to aspire to higher education (Marjoribanks, 2005; Bowdern & Dougherty, 2010, 2012);

The strength of the focus on aspirations can be explained in large part through federal policy and funding. The 1990 Green Paper ‘A Fair Chance For All’ (Dawkins, 1990), which was the result of Labor’s reforms to higher education and originally identified the six equity groups that continue to frame current equity practice and policy, identified aspirations as a key focus for work with low SES communities. Specific measures for this group outlined in the paper included the development of special entry arrangements, bridging/ support programs, school outreach/ aspirations programs in low SES areas, subsidized child care, better links with TAFE, developing information pathways for long-term unemployed. Outreach and aspiration-building were also identified in an additional funding package announced in the Liberal government’s higher education reforms in ‘Our Universities: Backing Australia’s Future in 2003 (Nelson, 2003), with the then Higher Education Equity Program (HEEP) to be increased by $2.3m per year from 2005 (based on performance-based formula) for outreach/aspiration programs and other equity-related activities.

However, the most profound shift, arguably, that has impacted on the research focus on aspirations occurred as a result of the ‘Bradley Review’ (2008), which called for significant reforms on the basis that “Australia faces a critical moment in the history of higher education” (p.xi). Couched in terms of precipitating a decline in ‘knowledge workers’, which would leave Australia struggling to compete in the global knowledge economy, Bradley et al. claimed that an ‘outstanding and internationally competitive’ higher education system was essential to maintaining standards of living in context of ‘rapidly changing future’ (p.xi). On this basis, the Bradley Review put forward now infamous participation targets to widen participation to meet the Australia’s future economic needs of 40% of 25-34 year olds to hold bachelor-level qualification by 2020 and 20% of enrolments to be low SES by 2020. These targets were inscribed into policy in the ‘Transforming Australia’s Higher Education System’ by the then-Labor government in 2009. A new funding mechanism was also introduced at the time – the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP; now HEPP) – which replaced the previous Equity Support Program, and added an addition $394million over four years to support the target of increasing low SES student numbers, $108million of which was for the ‘partnerships’ component, “deliberately putting in place systemic reasons for universities to be engaged with improving the quality of school education” (2009: 14) and offered $325million as an incentive for universities to expand enrolment of low SES students.

(Critique of) Deficit Discourses and Framings

Unsurprisingly, this policy shift and funding package provoked a flurry of research and equity initiatives and this activity is reflected in the literature. However, the majority of these 35 papers offer a critique of both the ideologies underlying policy. Many have critiqued the theorisation of aspirations that is instantiated in policy and practice imperatives, which positions aspirations as an individual psychological construct, which strongly connects with a deficit view of certain groups lacking (the correct) aspirations for ‘the good life’ that higher education offers (Bok, 2010; Gale, 2011, 2015; Gale & Hodge, 2014; Gale & Parker 2015a, 2015b; Sellar, 2013, 2015; Zipin et al., 2015). Placing the onus on individuals to aspire to higher education means that individuals and their families need to become neoliberal subjects in pursuit of self-improvement and self-entrepreneurialism, so that they “must display an ability to rationally calculate pathways to and through higher education… for maximum benefit” (Southgate & Bennett, 2012, p.35). This neoliberal view, and its underpinning deficit view of particular groups, is robustly contradicted in the literature, with research showing that many students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds generally having high aspirations for post-school education (for low SES students see Bok, 2010; Graham, Van Bergen & Sweller, 2015; Reid & McCallum, 2014; Wrench et al., 2013; for rural and remote students see Alloway et al., 2004; Alloway & Dalley-Trim, 2009; Dalley-Trim & Alloway, 2010; Gale et al., 2013; Fleming & Grace, 2015a, 2015b).

Trevor Gale, who has written extensively on aspirations in the context of equity, argues that Labor’s higher education policy lacked ‘sociological imagination’ in terms of considering the wider societal and structural constraints on aspiration, thus resulting in the projection of deficits onto individuals who didn’t want to engage with the neoliberal project into which higher education has become a major player; a ‘neoliberal form of hope’ in the words of Southgate & Bennett (2012). He argues that this lack of sociological imagination is evident in three ways: 1) widespread structural issues were misrecognised/ misrepresented; 2) there was a misalignment of private troubles/ public issues so that aspirations became located in individuals and social/community issues ignored; and 3) policy elevated private issues (individuals’ aspirations) to a public level, with limited/no consideration of how existing systems create ‘private troubles’ (2015: 259).  Similarly, Gale & Hodge (2014) returned to this idea, examining aspirations through the lens of social inclusion, drawing on Ball’s (1993) concept of first-order effects (surface change in practice) and second-order effects (change with results in shifts in dominance and relations). They argue that the policy effects of Labor’s higher education policy has resulted in a ‘just imaginary’, with many first-order effects evident, but little second-order effects taking place. This has lead to three dilemmas: limited sustainability of social inclusion/ equity agendas, particularly in view of diminishing political support for the widening participation agenda; ambiguity with regard to what students are aspiring to (what is ‘the good life’?); and the concealed ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant, 2007) that results from the situation where increased opportunity translates into diminished returns.

Other research has also drawn on the related notion of the ‘opportunity trap’ (Munro, 2011; Sellar, 2013, 2015), highlighting the notion of aspirations put forward in policy offer ‘false promise’ (Sellar, 2013), whereby the ‘promise’ of higher education might jostle with a sense of belonging to ‘home’, creating disconnections with friends and family, or where the expansion of higher education results in the devaluation of the currency of a university education in terms of translating into jobs or greater earning potential. Sellar (2013) argues that this results in an erosion of the power of human capital theory (more highly educated people can be more individually and productive and contribute more to the nation’s economy and growth). Sellar (2015) argues that equity has come to be understood “as a matter of providing talent with opportunity and ‘raising aspirations’ for these opportunities” (p.209), but where concurrently “the supply of aspirants outweigh[ing] the supply” (p.212), meaning that the promise of a good life for hard work and investment in education is broken.

A further aspect of the critique of the positioning and effects of aspiration in higher education policy is an implicit hierarchy of educational levels and spaces. Southgate & Bennett (2012) note that the discourse of the ‘proper aspirant’ is intertwined with the idea that university study is better than VET study, which is fuelled by the imposition of middle-class ideals of ‘the good life’ (Gale, 2015). Southgate & Bennett (2012) argue that the ‘proper aspirant’ subject position allows some ways of being/ doing/ knowing to be valued more than others, with ‘working-class’ subjectivity positioned as ‘unknowing’ with ‘deficits on quality’. Building on this idea of a normative hierarchy in education, which they purport to be a direct consequence of Australia’s push to become ‘the clever country’, Graham, Van Bergen & Sweller (2015) conducted a study to explore the aspirations of both ‘mainstream’ and disengaged young people in the context of academic and vocational pathways through school. They sought to explore “differences between three student groups with respect to the purpose of school and whether they see that purpose as consistent with their own aspirations” (p.243). Contrary to popular opinion, the young people with disruptive behaviour did aspire for post-school education and were able to see the value of it for “a secure, productive and fulfilled life”, albeit not necessarily from university study (p.237). Their findings suggest that the majority of mainstream students liked school work, with the opposite true being true for students with disruptive behaviour, who viewed school work as ‘tedious and irrelevant’. Graham and colleagues argue that the preoccupation with becoming the ‘clever country’ and getting students to achieve Year 12 has created an exclusive school curriculum, so that lifting student attainment and pushing towards university enrolment “has been dominant leading to the privileging of academic knowledge, attainment and pathways over vocational knowledge, attainment and pathways” (p.251).  In contrast, VET/ TAFE has been positioned as “deficit in parity of esteem” compared with university (p.251), meaning that TAFE is positioned as ‘second rate’. This is problematic for students who reject mainstream schooling, with Graham, Van Bergen & Sweller questioning the availability of ‘coherent and viable’ pathways for disaffected students, which impacts significantly on students’ capacities to aspire.

In terms of the students who constitute the ‘(im)proper aspirant’ (Southgate & Bennett, 2012), the literature focuses predominantly on two ‘equity’ groups: students from low SES backgrounds and rural/ remote students, and educationally disadvantaged school students. Starting with low SES students, Bok’s (2010) study of students in ‘the rustbelt’[1] of South Australia suggest that students’ attitudes and dispositions are heterogeneous and preferred futures are optimistic and hopeful (p.166). Her work is resonant with the findings in Prodonovich, Perry & Taggart (2014), which suggest that students from low SES areas have aspirations which are commensurate with other students, but they have a larger ‘aspiration gap’, meaning the distance between where students are and where they want to be due to systemic inequalities and inequitable access to knowledge, thus rejecting the individual deficit thesis. Bok (2010) argues for a more complex theorisation of aspiration beyond simplistic low v. high aspiration dichotomies: “homogeneous notions of populations and place do not provide sufficiently nuanced descriptions of the aspirations, achievement levels and capacities of students and families in these areas” (p.176). Wrench et al. (2013) also explore aspirations in students from areas of socio-economic challenge, focusing on the intersections between pedagogy and curriculum, and the formation of aspirations. The findings from their qualitative study foreground the importance of students’ identity and subjectivity to aspiration-forming, with pedagogy and curriculum, and teacher relationships integral factors in how students develop aspirations for their futures. Wrench et al. (2013) propose that pedagogy and curriculum that “connect student life-worlds within their particular contexts, building cultural capital and broadening capabilities, self-awareness, aspirations and achievement” (p.932).  Similarly, Reid & McCallum’s (2014) research produced similarly findings. They advocate for Place-Based Education, where students’ localities and experiences are privileged in the making of meaning and formation of aspirations for post-school futures. Reid & McCallum note the significance of excursions to a university campus as integral to building a sense of place, a finding which is echoed in Fleming & Grace’s (2015b) evaluation of a university campus experience in which they argue that such visits help students to imagine themselves as university students. Reid & McCallum also note the importance of the student-teacher relationship with regards to aspirations, noting that, Teachers whom the students trust offer new language and meaning to the students’ future thinking which engages and motivates them in their learning” (p.205).

However, despite the importance of teachers for developing aspirations featuring prominently in this literature (Reid & McCallum, 2014; Robinson, 2012; Gale et al., 2013; Wrench et al., 2014), others have raised the issue of poor student-teacher relationships in the constraining of students’ aspirations. Bland (2012) explored the experiences and aspirations of disaffected students ‘in the margins’ (students who had been excluded from ‘mainstream’ school) through the lens of the deficit discourse. He discusses the damage that deficit approaches/views and labels can have and argues that, ‘Demonising discourses’ have potential/ power to ‘morally exclude’ students who are positioned as deviant, unworthy or at-risk” (p.78). In particular, he notes that teachers can be (unwittingly) complicit in reproduction of social inequity by engaging in “discriminatory practices” such as having low expectations of particular students. In similar work, McMahon, Harwood & Hickey-Moody (2015) also probe the perceptions of disaffected young people in terms of how they imagine university. They found that the participants in their study were so disillusioned with school (predominantly as a result of poor student-teacher relations) that they view universities as ‘big’, ‘massive’/ large-scale alienating schools” (p.1), with the result being that this “lack of differentiation between schools and universities [having] a confounding effect on these young people’s capacity to imagine and pursue university participation” (p.7). They argue that universities have a significant role to play in ameliorating these kinds of perceptions through the juxtaposition of school and differences, foregrounding key distinctions between the aspects of schooling that such young people have rejected. They further argue that universities need to recognize that conversations with disaffected youths are part of the widening participation agenda; however, the relatively small portion of the literature that attends to this group of students appears to confirm that such conversations are not commonplace.



Alloway, N.; Gilbert, P.; Gilbert, R.; & Muspratt, S. (2004). Factors impacting on student aspirations and expectations in regional Australia. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Alloway, N. & Dalley-Trim (2009). ‘High and Dry’ in Rural Australia: Obstacles to Student Aspirations and Expectations, Rural Society, 19(1): 49-59.

Bland, D. (2012). Imagination for re-engagement from the margin of education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 39(1): 75-89.

Bok, J. (2010). The capacity to aspire to higher education: ‘It’s like making them do a play without the script’. Critical Studies in Education, 51(2): 163-178.

Bowdern, M. & Doughney, J. (2010). Socio-economic status, cultural diversity and the aspirations of secondary students in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, Higher Education, 59: 115-129.

Bowdern, M. & Doughney, J. (2012). The importance of cultural and economic influences behind the decision to attend higher education, The Journal of Socio-Economics, 41: 95-103.

Cuthill, M. & Jansen, D. (2013). Initial results from a longitudinal impact study focusing on a higher education ‘widening participation’ program in Australia, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(1): 7-21.

Dalley-Trim, L. & Alloway, N. (2010). Looking “Outward and Onward” in the Outback: Regional Australian Students’ Aspirations and Expectations for the Future as Framed by Dominant Discourses of Further Education and Training, The Australian Educational Researcher, 37(2): 107-125.

Fleming, M. & Grace, D. (2015). Beyond aspirations: addressing the unique barriers faced by rural Australian students contemplating university, Journal of Further and Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/0309877X.2015.1100718

Fleming, M. & Grace, D. (2015). Eyes on the future: The impact of a university campus experience day on students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, Australian Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1177/0004944114567689

Gale, T. (2011). Expansion and equity in Australian higher education: Three propositions for new relations, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 32(5): 669-685.

Gale, T. (2015). Widening and expanding participation in Australian higher education: In the absence of sociological imagination, The Australian Educational Researcher, 42(2): 257-271.

Gale, T.; Sellar, S;. Parker, S.; Hattam, R.; Comber, B.; Tranter, D.; & Bills, D. (2010). Interventions early in school as a means to improve higher education outcomes for disadvantaged (particularly low SES) students, National Centre Student Equity in Higher Education, Underdale, S. Aust. (A-D).

Gale, T.; Parker, S.; Rodd, P.; Stratton, G.; & Sealey, T. (2013). Student Aspirations for Higher Education in Central Queensland: A survey of school students’ navigational capacities. Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation (CREFI): Deakin University.

Gale, T. & Hodge, S. (2014). Just imaginary: delimiting social inclusion in higher education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(5): 688-709.

Gale, T. & Molla, T. (2015). Social justice intents in policy: an analysis of capability for and through education, Journal of Educational Policy, 30(6): 810-830.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2015). Calculating student aspiration: Bourdieu, spatiality and the politics of recognition, Cambridge Journal of Education, 45(1): 81-96.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2015). To aspire: a systematic reflection on understanding aspirations in higher education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 42(2): 139-153.

Galliott, N. (2015). Youth aspirations, participation in higher education and career choice capability: where to from here? The Australian Educational Research, 42(2): 133-137

Gore, J.; Holmes, K.; Smith, M.; Lyell, A.; Ellis, H.; & Fray, L. (2014). Choosing University: The Impact of Schools and Schooling: Final Report to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. University of Newcastle.

Gore, J.; Holmes, K.; Smith, M.; Southgate, E. & Albright, J. (2015). Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. The Australian Educational Researcher, 42: 155-177.

Graham, L.; Van Bergen, P.; & Sweller, N. (2015). ‘To educate you to be smart’: disaffected students and the purpose of school in the (not so clever) ‘lucky country’, Journal of Education Policy, 30(2): 237-257.

Harwood, V.; McMahon, S.; O’Shea, S.; Bodkin-Andrews, G.; & Priestly, A. (2015). Recognising aspiration: the AIME program’s effectiveness in inspiring Indigenous young people’s participation in schooling and opportunities for further education and employment, The Australian Educational Researcher, 42: 217-236

James, R. (2001). Participation disadvantage in Australian higher education: An analysis of some effects of geographic location and socioeconomic status, Higher Education, 42: 455-472.

James, R. (2002). Socioeconomic Background and Higher Education Participation: An analysis of school students’ aspirations and expectations. Centre for the Study of Higher Education: The University of Melbourne.

Lynch, J.; Walker-Gibbs, B.; & Herbert, S. (2015). Moving beyond a ‘bums-on-seats’ analysis of progress towards widening participation: reflections on the context, design and evaluation of an Australian government-funded mentoring programme, Journal of Education Policy and Management, 37(2): 144-158.

McMahon, S.; Harwood, V.; & Hickey-Moody, A. (2015). ‘Students that just hate school wouldn’t go’: educationally disengaged and disadvantaged young people’s talk about university education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2015.1014546

Marjoribanks, K. (2005). Family background, adolescents’ educational aspirations, and Australian young adults’ educational attainment, International Education Journal, 6(1): 104-112.

Munro, L. (2011). ‘Go boldly, dream large!’: The challenges confronting non-traditional students at university, Australian Journal of Education, 55(2): 115-131.

Prodonovich, S.; Perry, L.; & Taggart, A. (2014). Developing conceptual understandings of the capacity to aspire for higher education, Issues in Educational Research, 24(2): 174-190.

Robinson, S. (2012). Freedom, Aspiration and Informed Choice in Rural Higher Education: Why They Are Saying ‘No’. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 22(2): 79-95.

Sellar, S. (2013). Equity, markets and the politics of aspiration in Australian higher education. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34(2): 245-258.

Sellar, S. (2015). ‘Unleashing aspiration’: The concept of potential in education policy, The Australian Educational Researcher, 42(2): 201-215.

Sellar, S. & Gale, T. (2011). Mobility, aspiration, voice: a new structure of feeling for student equity in higher education. Critical Studies in Education, 52(2): 115-134.

Sellar, S., Gale, T., & Parker, S. (2011). Appreciating aspirations in Australian higher education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(1): 37-52.

Skeyne, J. (2010). Developing productive relationships with partner schools to widen participation. A Practice Report, The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 1(1): 77-83.

Smith, L. (2011). Experiential ‘hot’ knowledge and its influence on low-SES students’ capacities to aspire to higher education. Critical Studies in Education, 52(2): 165-177.

Southgate, E. & Bennett, A. (2014). Excavating Widening Participation Policy in Australian Higher Education: Subject Positions, Representational Effects, Emotion, Creative Approaches to Research, 7(1): 21-45.

Wrench, A.; Hammond, C.; McCallum, F.; & Price, D. (2013). Inspire to aspire: raising aspirational outcomes through a student well-being curricular focus, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17(9): 932-947.

Zipin, L.; Sellar, S.; Brennan, M.; Gale, T. (2015). Educating for Futures in Marginalized Regions: A sociological framework for rethinking and researching aspirations, Educational Philosophy and Theory, 47(3): 227-246


[1] [1] ‘Rustbelt’ = “a post-industrial area situated in the outer suburban fringe, which has been adversely affected by the closure of factories and small businesses, resulting in relatively high unemployment and concomitant social disadvantage (Bok, 2010: 169; see also Thomson, 2002). Contrast with ‘leafy green’ communities near the city.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.