Outreach Initiatives for Equity Groups in 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.

In terms of initiatives and activities designed to build aspirations or observed as supporting aspiration-formation, much of the literature examines university outreach into secondary schools. Fleming & Grace (2015a, 2015b) explore the efficacy and impact of the University of Canberra’s outreach program Aspire UC in the two papers included in this part of the review (see also Fleming & Grace, 2014a, 2014b). In their 2015a paper, Fleming & Grace focus of their evaluation of this outreach program is on the experiences of rural and remote students with the ‘ACT Experience Camp’ (a collaborative enterprise with the Country Education Foundation). Analysis of their evaluations with participating students suggests that the camp had little impact on the aspirations of the group—70% of whom had already expressed intention to consider higher education, and presumably was a factor in their decision to attend the camp – but they reported learning a lot about university from their experience. Most of the students had not seen a university before and the experience of visiting a campus changed many students’ views of university, and meant they created ‘imagined selves’ as university students based on their expectations about workloads, work, friends, classes and going home at weekends. In their second 2015 paper, Fleming & Grace (2015b) examine the impact of on-campus experience days for low SES (or ‘financially disadvantaged’) students. The findings reported were similar to their previous paper on regional students, finding that students generally have high aspirations for further study, with no significant differences in terms of age (also evident in Gore et al., 2015), Indigeneity, or previous experience with Aspire AC. Fleming & Grace argue that provision of information is paramount for building aspirations (p.92), with tangible experiences (physical experiences) important for facilitating the development of imagination of self as a university student.

Similarly, Harwood et al. (2015) examine the impact of a nationwide mentoring program for indigenous students, called Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME). This program operates both on university campuses (18 universities across 5 states and the ACT), and in secondary schools within a two-hour drive of a university campus, and connects indigenous university students as mentors and role models for indigenous school students. The authors report that AIME “significantly and positively impacts Australian Indigenous high school students’ aspirations to finish school and continue to further study, training or employment” (2015: 217). This is achieved through a specific focus on aspiration-building, working from Appadurai’s theory of navigational capacity, and Yosso’s (2005) Community Cultural Wealth framework, both of which privilege the knowledges students have, actively working against educational/aspirational deficit framings of indigenous students. Harwood et al.’s (2015) findings suggest that the majority of mentees aspire to complete Year 12 (89%), 44% aspire to go to university, and 74% have clear post-school aspirations. The authors claim that AIME celebrates the aspiration capital of indigenous students by “perpetually link[ing] the past, present and future in aspirational terms, and in so doing, recognise the navigational capacity that the young people already possess” (p.230).

In contrast, to this literature that reports overwhelmingly positive effects of outreach, Lynch, Walker-Gibbs & Herbert (2015) report on a HEPPP-funded mentoring initiative that indicated that rather than raising the aspirations of its participants, they were less clear about their futures following engagement in the program. Lynch and colleagues argue that not only could a ‘don’t know’ response to a question about future aspirations be a more mature answer for the participants (rather than a ‘I’m going to be a…’ response), their findings also point to issues that emerge from short-term funding cycles that privilege numbers as measurements of success and tracking positive change. Such ontological impositions limit the view of what activities such as the mentoring program described can achieve. Moreover, the authors argue that such number-led funding/reporting imperatives are “likely to underestimate the significance of smaller qualitative changes” (2015: 156), and instead they argue for recognition of the power of small changes, rather than ‘education revolutions’.

Trevor Gale and colleagues (2010) have extensively examined university outreach work, exploring ‘what works’ in terms of building capacity and developing aspirations. They argue that three equity perspectives inform high quality university outreach programs: 1) they unsettle deficit views of disadvantaged students and communities; 2) they research local knowledges and negotiate local interventions; 3) they build capacity in communities, schools and universities. As part of this federally funded work, Gale et al. (2010) created the Design and Evaluation Matrix for Outreach (DEMO) following a review of 59 outreach programs from 26 universities in Australia. They found that:

  • Most initiatives are aimed at Year 10;
  • The most common type of outreach is for aspiration-raising; financial assistance is the least common;
  • Many are one-off events (tasters/campus visits);
  • Equity Units in universities drive/fund a large amount of the activities surveyed (40%);
  • Universities receive between $10,001 and $50,000 per program (most funded for 5 years+);
  • 39% include 20+ schools; 27% involve 6-10 schools;
  • 31% of programs include 201-500 students;
  • Low SES students are the most common target group, then indigenous, then rural/remote;
  • Most programs were evaluated on basis of participant feedback; and
  • Most common outcome reported is a rise in student aspirations, then better familiarity with admissions/ enrolments/ procedures (2010 part B, p.6)

Gale et al.’s analysis of the data collected suggests that there is no simple formula for designing successful outreach activities, but that activities should involve consultation/partnership with range of stakeholders, secure funding, and articulate a “sophisticated equity orientation” (p.5). The DEMO designed on the back of this research was created for evaluating and designing outreach activities, and is based on 10 characteristics based around four strategic themes: assembling resources, engaging learners, working together, building confidence. The authors suggest that for optimum results, an outreach program should demonstrate/ deliver five or more of the characteristics from all four of the strategies.

The work put forward in Gale et al. (2010) is a rare example in the literature of a systematic and theoretically informed evaluation model for equity-related activities. Much of the literature that offers a view of outreach activities is broadly a-theoretical, offering little in the way of conceptual underpinnings or methodological/ evaluative frameworks. There are examples in this literature of what could be considered ‘academic marketing’, offering descriptive accounts of programs and their impacts. The roots of this may be explained by Gale et al.’s (2010) analysis of the 59 outreach programs they examined: 36% of the programs were the direct responsibility of an Equity Unit and 12% were the responsibility of the Marketing Department. The ‘good practice’ report by Skeyne (2010) is a clear example of this form of literature (also see Christensen & Evamy, 2011): offering a descriptive overview of the ‘UWA-Aspire’ program and suggesting strategies for developing productive relationships with partner school that are both generalised and arguably commonsensical. It is difficult to know what the reader can take from such literature, other than a sense of relational positionality in terms of comparing how one institution’s program sits or jostles alongside another. There is relatively little in the way of contribution to knowledge in a traditional sense; this paper does not engage with theoretical literature, nor does it position itself within a methodological paradigm or within a knowledge tradition. However, it would be wrong to take an academically moral stance on this; there are many reasons for the publication of such accounts, not least the ‘publish or perish’ culture that has permeated higher education and the neoliberal imperative to ‘sell’ the institution and gain positional advantage.  



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.; 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).

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

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.

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.


Related literature

Christensen, L. & Evamy, S. (2011). MAPs to Success: Improving the First Year Experience of alternative entry mature age students, The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 2(2): 35-48.

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.