Transition and Equity

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.

In the context of pathways and equity, the term ‘transition’ (to describe both the phenomena and the discourses of educational movements) is used as synonymous with pathways, although its use often refers to specific pathways (for example, transitions from TAFE to university). In this section, the literature that offers a theoretical discussion of the term transition is discussed.  Gale & Parker (2011, 2014) explored 24 Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC)-funded projects (research and fellowships) to develop a better understanding of what transition means/ is taken to mean in Australian educational research. From their research, they note that transition is often undefined to taken to be commonsensical, leading to diverse positioning of provision and students within transition-related activities funded by the ALTC. From this exploration, they offer a three-part typology of transition:

  1. As induction: sequentially defined periods of adjustment involving pathways of inculcation, from one institutional and/or disciplinary context to another (T1);
  2. As development: qualitatively distinct stages of maturation involving trajectories of transformation, from one student and/or career identity to another (T2); or
  3. As becoming: a perpetual series of fragmented movements involving whole-of-life fluctuations in lived reality or subjective experience, from birth to death (T3).

Gale & Parker (2014) proclaim they have the ‘most sympathy’ for T3 (transition as becoming) because it “has the most potential for new thinking about transitions in HE in socially inclusive ways” (p.735). They argue that as a result of policy and practice on transition being disconnected from broader literature on youth and whole-of-life transitions, work and theorisations of transition-related activities are limited in scope and potential for transformation. They also contend that the dominant conceptions of transition found in the 24 projects they explored (primarily transition as induction, then transition as development) are system-driven and system serving, meaning they require students to change but not institutions’ systems or structures. In order to develop more student-focused and responsive pathways, educators and researchers need to be more aware of students’ lived realities rather than focusing on institutional/ systemic self-interest.

This last point is picked up in Stirling & Rossetto’s (2015) discussion of transition in the context of providing academic support to equity students in their first year of undergraduate study, specifically in the context of blended learning and digital literacies. They argue that normative assumptions about what students bring and what lecturers can offer lead to “competing realities”, which place “important differences and the politics of identity inherent in diversity and social inclusion under erasure” (p.17). Stirling & Rossetto argue that there are core tensions between teachers, equity students and academic literacies advisors when it comes to facilitating students’: “We argue that too often subject lecturers, equity students and, indeed, ALL teachers, become entangled in the sometimes competing imperatives of teaching directives and equity policy implementation” (p.11), which requires a radical change (‘recalibration’) of what transition means in context of widening participation and technological change. The issue of normative assumptions regarding students’ transition is also evident in Gravett, Kinchin and Winstone’s (2020) study, which investigated the transition conceptions held by academic and professional staff who support students’ learning into and through higher education. Findings from the study revealed the academic and professional staff draw heavily on the normative concepts of transitions, where students are viewed in deficit (Gravett et al., 2020). However, evidence from the concept maps drawn by participants also highlight a divergence from the main narrative, where the staff acknowledged the complex, multiple, individual, and heterogenous nature of students’ transitions into higher education. Gravett et al. (2020) thus contend that the deviation from the normative understandings of student transition suggests that staff are becoming increasingly aware of students’ heterogenous experiences of transitions, which points towards ‘pedagogic frailty’ (p. 11), as relevant support for students is still lacking.  On the other hand,  Baker and Irwin’s (2019) study highlights how institutional assumptions create ‘stuck places’ for refugee students’ transition into HE.  Their investigation of  the experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse refugee students (CALDM/R) who moved from a TAFE context into a regional Australian university revealed that despite the common experiences of forced migration experienced by all students, significant individual differences were also observed in terms of ‘level of language and literacy proficiency, familiarity with Australia’s education system and obligations falling outside of the traditionally held boundaries of study’ (Baker & Irwin, 2009,p. 9). Baker & Irwin (2009) therefore contend that despite their good intentions and opportunities to access higher education, many CALDM/R students are often ‘stuck’ due to the ‘monolithic assumptions of what students bring with them and can do, and unrealistic expectations of individuals’ capacity to help themselves without targeted and responsive supports’ (p. 17). Hence, the authors suggest that higher education institutions should ‘understand and value the rich heterogeneity of students experiences, and develop more nuanced and flexible approaches’ (Baker & Irwin, 2009, p. 17) in supporting students’ transition.

There is also scholarly interest on the factors that influence the transition experiences of students into higher education. Meuleman et al.’s (2015) study of non-traditional students’ experiences of their first year of university draws on Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital to understand ‘field expectations’ of higher education study. They assert that receiving grades, forced independence and disconnection from other students are key contributors to feeling emotionally and academically isolated in their first year, leading to “non-traditional students not [being] well positioned in relation to cultural and social capital to negotiate transition to university” (p.513) and as a result they are constructed as ‘other’. Meuleman et al. (2015) call for a broadened perspective in the moral purpose of universities and a shared belief in wanting to make the transition to university smoother and accessible for all student groups”, with more focus on “the interconnectedness of academic and social experience of university and the importance of strong social support” (p.514-5). Similarly, findings from Wilcox, Winn and Fybie-Gauld’s (2005) study of 22 students in Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton indicate students’ anxieties about making friends as a significant aspect of students’ transitions, therefore highlighting the importance of social support to facilitate students’ transition in Year 1 of university. The importance of social support is also emphasised by Wrench, Garrett and King’s (2013) study, which explored the factors impacting the health and wellbeing of students transitioning into HE. Findings from the study revealed the importance of a sense of community for students, therefore highlighting the need for universities to develop programs that promote social networks and supportive peer relationships (Wrench et al., 2013). On the other hand, findings from Brinkworth, McCann, Matthews and Nordstrom’s (2009) study, which investigated how the expectations of first year students were met in universities, indicate that feedback was a significant issue where a mismatch between the expectations and realities of students and the perceptions of students and teachers (Brinkworth et al., 2009). The authors therefore argue for “more proactive and earlier intervention strategies to facilitate students’ transitions” (Brinkworth et al., 2009, p. 170).

Power & Hibbert (2016) on the other hand advocate for a “collective, multidimensional learning experience” for facilitating becoming, identity negotiation and transformations, meaning making, pushing forward alternative ways of doing, being, knowing (and feeling) by “disrupt[ing] the imposition of White values onto students of diverse backgrounds, while still enabling them to develop strategies to succeed in relation to it” (p.A45). They offer an example of such transition approaches in an elective undergraduate Education module that centres on peer mentoring called ‘Experiential Learning in Communities’ at Western Sydney University. Based on principles of reflexive praxis and student-led communities of practice, the course is designed to facilitate Gale & Parker’s ‘transition as becoming’ conceptualisation, so to “provide a generative space for the creation of a new integrative melding of multiple sources of cultural and social capital” (p.A41).


Baker, S. & Irwin, E. (2019). Disrupting the dominance of ‘linear pathways’: how institutional assumptions create ‘stuck places’ for refugee students’ transitions into higher education, Research Papers in Education, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2019.1633561

Brinkworth, R.; McCann, B.; Matthews, C. & Nordström, K. (2009). First year expectations and experiences: student and teacher perspectives, Higher Education, 58, 157–173.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2011). Student transition into higher education. ALTC Good Practice Report. Surry Hills, NSW: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2014). Navigating change:  a typology of student transition in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 39(5): 734-753

Gravett, K.; Kinchin, I. & Winstone, N. (2020). Frailty in transition? Troubling the norms, boundaries and limitations of transition theory and practice, Higher Education Research & Development

Power, C. & Hibbert, E. (2016). Student-facilitated transition: Fostering empowered collectives, Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1): A35-A47.

Stirling, J. & Rossetto, C. (2015). “Are we there yet?”: Making sense of transition in higher education, Student Success, 6(2): 9-20.

Wilcox, P.; Winn, S. & Fybie-Gauld, M. (2005). ‘It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people’: the role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707–722.

Wrench, A.; Garrett, R. & King, S. (2013). Guessing where the goal posts are: managing health and well-being during the transition to university studies, Journal of Youth Studies, 16(6), 730–746.


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.