Enabling Education in Australian 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. 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.

There is a set of key foci in the literature that explores enabling education, which include:

  • Students’ experiences of empowerment through their studies
  • Transformational learning
  • Transitions into undergraduate studies

There is a small but growing body of literature that focuses specifically on Indigenous enabling education (see Hall, 2015; Fredericks et al., 2015). Just over 10% of the literature included in this review pertains to enabling education, with 26 entries that specifically address Australian enabling programs. Despite the proliferation of enabling programs across Australia (there were at least 36 programs over 27 institutions noted in the audit of enabling education reported in Baker & Irwin (2015), which does not include the number of Indigenous-specific enabling programs), enabling education arguably holds a periphery position in higher education. This is represented in the body of literature and empirical research that has explored this field. Of that literature, the majority of papers are presented in conference proceedings or in a The Australian Journal of Adult Learning. A relatively small proportion of this literature that has spoken about enabling education to an international audience, despite its obvious connections with other western education systems, such as foundation education in New Zealand[i], the Access to Higher Education space in the UK[ii] and College Access in the USA[iii]. The Australian-centric nature of the conversation arguably contributes to the marginal position that enabling education holds in Australian higher education. All but one of the enabling-related published literature included in this review presents empirical or evaluative work, often focused at the level of one program (Andrewartha & Harvey, 2014; Chambers, Whannell & Whannell, 2014; Cocks & Stokes, 2012, 2013; Crawford, 2014; Johns et al., 2016). There are examples in the literature of comparisons across programs (Cantwell & Grayson, 2002) and more field-wide discussion (Cantwell, 2004; Bennett et al., 2012). There are also two papers that explore Indigenous-specific enabling education (Hall, 2015; Frederick et al., 2015).

The literature included in this review encompasses the two dominant research paradigms, with a broad mix of both quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods empirical work presented. The quantitative literature is predominantly concerned with measurable psychosocial constructs such as self-efficacy and confidence, and measurements of ‘efficacy’, such as retention, attrition and academic performance. For instance, Cantwell & Grayson (2002) focused on enabling students’ self-efficacy, approaches to learning and academic achievement. Their findings, based on survey data, suggest that there are no conclusive differences in self-efficacy between students entering via Open Foundation (mature age students), Newstep (18-20 year olds) and students entering university via the Tertiary Preparation Course (TPC) at TAFE (see Cantwell & Grayson, 2002). However, female students appear to have higher self-confidence than males across the three groups, and the mature age students in Open Foundation appeared to have in deeper approaches to learning than the other two (younger) groups. Robert Whannell and colleagues’ more recent work has also employed quantitative methods and has sought to identify predictors of attrition (Whannell, 2013a), students’ self-efficacy (Whannell, 2013b; Whannell, Whannell & Allen, 2012), and identifying ‘at risk’ enabling students (Whannell & Whannell, 2014). Whannell (2013) identified what can be broadly summarised as three main factors contributing to drop out: age, with attrition more likely among younger (18-24 years old) students; attendance, with low levels of attendance correlating with drop out; and peer support, where higher levels of support appear to connect with lower levels of attrition. A further exploration through the lens of ‘First-in-Family’ students suggests that there does not appear to be a difference in terms of academic performance between first-in-family and other students (Whannell, 2013b). Furthermore, while these students initially have lower levels of self-efficacy, this is generally resolved by the end of the program. The study of self-efficacy (Whannell, Whannell & Allen, 2012), based on responses to a questionnaire, supports the findings in Whannell (2013b) and Cantwell & Grayson (2012), suggesting that low self-efficacy is resolved throughout the enabling program, but anxiety persists with assessment tasks such as presentations and exams. They further purport that the first half of the program (weeks 1-6) is highly significant for engaging students, developing confidence and preventing attrition.

Other work has employed mixed-methods to examine aspects of enabling education. The study offered by Bennett et al. (2012) drew from a multi-site, OLT-funded project to explore attrition and retention in the Open Foundation program at UON. They note that first-in-family students are slightly more likely to attrit from their studies, and that those students who dropped out reported that expectations about the amount of time needed to study and family responsibilities had been significant factors in their decision to leave the program. Bennett et al. make the case that existing measurements of retention and attrition are too simplistic to inform educators and policy makers of the complex lives and reasons for continuing or leaving studies. They argue, If we are not careful, the focus on completion may deflect attention from the important role of enabling education in serving the needs of a diversity of peoples within the population and how this contributes to the overall function and wellbeing of the wider community” (2012: 144). In addition, Habel’s (2012) exploration of student self-efficacy and approaches to learning suggests that while there was no evident change to students’ surface learning approaches over the duration of his study, students appeared to report a substantial positive increase in their self-efficacy as they progressed through their studies. However, Habel offers a cautionary note about this kind of work, arguing that, The problem with discussions of confidence and self-esteem in [enabling] programmes is that the potential benefits to students and the profound social needs alluded to above (in addition to emotive language) can distract us from the need for rigorous analysis and research on the issue” (p.813).

The remaining literature relating to enabling education employs broadly qualitative methods – predominantly interviews and focus groups – to attend to the situated experiences of enabling students. This literature can broadly be split into three core foci: particular student groups (adult/mature age learners, rural and remote learners, Non-English Speaking Backgrounds - NESB); inclusive/transformative learning; and online/distance learning. These four categories are not mutually exclusive; rather many of these publications touch on more than one of these themes.  Broadly speaking, the qualitative literature presents mostly positive accounts of the transformative potential of the programs profiled. For instance, Coombes, Danaher & Danaher (2013) present data that speaks to the potential empowerment students experience through engaging in enabling education. Similarly, Cocks & Stokes (2013) describe how Foundation Studies at UniSA has designed an inclusive curriculum that facilitates relationship-building, learner identity development and staff awareness of student diversity. Similarly, Crawford (2014) notes how students in the UPP program at UTAS not only developed academic skills, confidence and connections with peers, they also assumed roles as leaders (or knowledgeable insiders) when they commenced undergraduate studies and had enhanced awareness of multicultural peers, as some of Crawford’s participants came from rural areas and were not familiar with people outside of their own communities. Working from the perspective of rural students in Tasmania, Johns et al.’s (2016) study of the medium to long-term consequences of enabling education. Their analysis of student data gathered via surveys and interviews suggests that three main themes emerged: developed resilience, a strong sense of purpose, and commitment to further study. These findings are significant in the context of the students who participated, 82% of whom remained living in the same rural area they had been living in when they started the UPP program, and that it had had an impact on the students’ family, resulted in an increase in the local skills base and increased awareness of higher education in community. Johns et al. argue that, “Enabling programs are a powerful but under-valued tool in helping to unlock and harness the potential within rural communities, both in the medium and longer term” (2016: 69). In addition, Willans & Seary (2007) explored the perceptions of adult learners returning to study in the STEPS program at CQU, noting three common negative self-perceptions (as too scared, too stupid and too old) that are mostly eroded through the process of transformation resulting from learning: “Once freed from the chains of these assumptions, the learners became liberated in a sense, and experienced personal change” (p.435).

However, other studies offer a more nuanced view of the complexities inherent in offering alternative entry through enabling programs. Murray & Klinger’s (2012) case study of Judy, a mother of seven and mature age returner to education, echo the findings in Willans & Seary (2007) but add a layer of critique. Murray & Klinger note that Judy’s experience of the Foundation Studies program at UniSA, coupled with her extensive parenting and work experience, left her feeling frustrated when she entered her undergraduate program because her knowledge and skills were not recognised. Cocks & Stokes (2012, 2013) note the difficulties posed for both students and staff when students enter with low levels of proficiency in academic English, making the argument that “minimal entry requirements for access… may encourage those with low English language proficiency to develop unrealistic expectations of undergraduate success” (2013: 32). Similarly, Habel & Whitman (2016) foreground both the positive and negative impacts of studying in an enabling program, advocating acknowledgement of a continuum of experiences (positive-negative) – not just focusing on the positive and transformative aspects of enabling education: “Without an acknowledgement of the field at play, enabling programmes become simple vehicles of social mobility, a way for marginalised students to move up in the ladder of society” (p.74).

One further approach taken in the enabling-related literature works from a historical-archival methodology. In her 2005 paper, May offers a historical overview of the development of the oldest enabling program – Open Foundation, tracing the ‘layers of context’ that led to its particular shape. May tracks the influence of other open university models, notably the Open University in the UK, on the creation of the first such ‘open access’ program in Australia. May & Bunn (2015) extend this work, offering a detailed view of the development of Open Foundation through exploration of archived data and interviews with key stakeholders involved in commencement of the program. They report that, Open Foundation was as ‘open’ as [original head of program] Brian Smith could make it and the University at the time could tolerate. Adults could try their hand at university with no requirements and no repercussions (2015: 149). This historical analysis offers a useful insight into how enabling education evolved into its current diverse and locally responsive form (Baker & Irwin, 2015).

The vast majority of the enabling literature that attends to enabling education is based on insider accounts, written by scholars and teachers who are reflecting on their own practice. However, a paper by Thomas (2014) offers an outsider view based on a naturalistic inquiry of HEPP(P)-funded activities. Thomas’ data suggests that pathways (enabling) teachers “appeared to be undervalued or marginalised within the university system. They tended to work on a casual or part-time basis and the funding mechanisms for the programmes created uncertainty about their long-term employment. For the staff in more permanent positions, most were not actively conducting research, they carried very high teaching loads, and some reported a lack of confidence in the value of their voice” (p.815). Thomas’ analysis also suggests that pathways staff lack confidence and only have tacit understandings of aspects of their teaching experience that contributes to the effectiveness of their programs. Thomas’ study suggests that there is still a lot more research that needs to be undertaken in order to better understand the work that is done in enabling classrooms, in addition to the prevailing focus on students’ experiences.



Andrewartha, A. & Harvey, A. (2104). Willing and enabled: The academic outcomes of a tertiary enabling program in regional Australia, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 54(1): 50-68

Baker, S. & Irwin, E. (2015). A national audit of academic literacies provision in enabling courses in Australian Higher Education (HE). Association for Academic Language and Learning. Retrieved from http://www.aall.org.au/sites/default/files/Baker-Irwin_AALL-report-final_project_2014-2-1.pdf

Bennett, A., Hodges, B., Kavanagh, K., Fagan, S., Hartley, J., & Schofield, N. (2013). ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ aspects of learning as investment: opening up the neo-liberal view of a programme with ‘high’ levels of attrition. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14, 141-156.

Cantwell, R. (2004). Positioning the bar: outcomes associated with successful completion of an enabling course. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 44, 354-388.

Cantwell, R. & Grayson, R. (2002). Individual Differences Among Enabling Students: A comparison across three enabling programmes, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 26(4): 293-306.

Chambers, K.; Whannell, R.; & Whannell, P. (2014). The use of peer assessment in a regional Australian university tertiary bridging course, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 54(1): 69-88.

 Cocks, T. & Stokes, J. (2012) A Strong Foundation: Inclusive Education at an Australian University College, International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, 3 (4): 844-851.

Cocks, T. & Stokes, J. (2013). Policy into practice: a case study of widening participation in Australian higher education, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(1): 22-38.

Coombes, P.; Danaher, P.; & Danaher, G. (2013). Transforming learning through capacity-building: Maximising life and learning support to mobilise diversities in an Australian pre-undergraduate preparatory program, The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 4(2): 27-37.

Crawford, N. (2014) Practical and profound: multi-layered benefits of a university enabling program and implications for higher education, International Studies in Widening Participation, 1(2): 15-30.

Debenham, J., & May, J. (2005). Making connections: a dialogue about learning and teaching in a tertiary enabling program. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 45, 82-105.

Fredericks, B., Kinnear, S., Daniels, C., CroftWarcon, P. and Mann, J. (2015). Path+Ways: Towards best practice bridging and Indigenous participation through regional dual-sector universities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Habel, C. (2012). ‘I can do it, and how!’ Student experience in access and equity pathways to higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 31(6): 811-825.

Habel, C. & Whitman, K. (2016). Opening spaces of academic culture: doors of perception; heave and hell, Higher Education Research & Development, 35(1): 71-83.

Hall, L. (2015). What are the key ingredients for an effective and successful tertiary enabling program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students? An evaluation of the evolution of one program. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(2): 244-266.

Johns, S.; Crawford, N.; Hawkins, C.; Jarvis, L.; Harris, M.; & McCormack, D. (2016). Unlocking the potential within: A preliminary study of individual and community outcomes from a university enabling program in rural Australia, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 56(1): 69-88.

Lambrinidis, G. (2014). Supporting online, non-traditional students through the introduction of effective e-learning tools in a pre-university tertiary enabling programme, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 36(3): 257-267.

Levy, S. & Murray, J. (2005). Tertiary Entrance Scores Need Not Determine Academic Success: An analysis of student performance in an equity and access program, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(1): 129-141.

May, J. (2005). A child of change: The establishment of the Open Foundation Programme in 1974, History of Educational Review, 34(1): 51-62.

May, J. & Bunn, R. (2015). 1974-1976: the seeds of longevity in a pathway to tertiary preparation at University of Newcastle, NSW, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(1): 135-152 Murray, N. & Klinger, C. (2012). Dimensions of conflict: reflections on the higher education experience from an access education perspective, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 31(2): 117-133.

Ramsay, E. (2004). Blurring the boundaries and re-thinking the categories: Implications of enabling education for the mainstream post-compulsory sector, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 44(3): 273-305.

Shah, M.; 2, E.; West, S.; & Clark, H. (2014). Widening Student Participation in Higher Education through Online Enabling Education, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 16(3): 36-56.

Whannell, R. (2013a). First-in-family students in a tertiary bridging program: Does it really make a difference?, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(3): 6-21.

Whannell, R. (2013b). Predictors of Attrition and Achievement in a Tertiary Bridging Program, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 53(2): 280-301.

Whannell, R., Alen, B., & Lynch, K. (2010). Casualties of Schooling? 18 to 22 Year Old Students in a Tertiary Bridging Programs. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 35(5): 1-7.

Whannell, P.; Whannell, R.; & Allen, B. (2012). Investigating the influence of teacher strategies on academic self-efficacy and study behaviour of students in a tertiary bridging program, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 52(1): 39-65.

Whannell, R.; Whannell, P. (2014). Identifying tertiary bridging students at risk of failure in the first semester of undergraduate study, Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 54(2): 101-120.

Willans, J. & Seary, K. (2007). ‘I’m not stupid after all’ - changing perceptions of self as a tool for transformation. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 47(3), 433 – 452.

Annotated bibliography published as:

Irwin, E.; Baker, S. & Hamilton, E. (2019). Alternative pathways into higher education open access annotated bibliography: enabling, foundation, access & bridging education. Published via Analysis & Policy Observatory: https://apo.org.au/node/266946

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.