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'Go boldly, dream large!': the challenges confronting non-traditional students at university.

Background and methodology

The vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Stephen Parker, recently referred in a radio interview to the phenomenon of the student-worker and the virtual disappearance of the traditional university student:

The lack of financial support for students means that almost all of them are in part-time work now. And they are distracted from their studies and from the university overall experience ... it's a large problem, the way students have disengaged psychologically from the university experience. It's no longer the intense formative period that it probably was a generation ago. (Parker, 2009)

This article looks at the 'large problem' identified by the vice-chancellor and many of his colleagues and, in doing so, describes what is at stake for both the student-workers and the university sector itself, especially in the context of government policy to widen university participation by including increasing numbers of students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds.

At the turn of this century, many university staff were experiencing the kind of unease about the student-worker phenomenon felt by secondary teachers in the 1980s (Munro, 1989). For the past two decades or more, lecturing staff have witnessed the gradual disappearance of the authentic full-time student on university campuses. At the university in rural Victoria that provides the context for this study, academics have long lamented that many students do not buy textbooks, attend classes regularly or set aside enough hours to complete their assignments satisfactorily. Until quite recently at least, there has been a paucity of qualitative research relating to student term-time employment and the impact it has on their academic progress.

This case study is of Monash University Gippsland, a regional campus in Victoria with an enrolment in 2009 of just over 4000 students of whom 49% were off-campus and 32% were on campus and studying full-time. But the latter figure and designation do not reflect the reality of the student presence on the campus--or more accurately, the absence--since the majority of on-campus students are, in reality, working off campus in paid jobs during term time. There were some students (19%) who were designated as mixed mode: that is, their study status varied at different times during their courses. As part of a wider project on education and life chances, an unpublished survey of 148 full-time on-campus students revealed that approximately 60% were engaged in term-time employment. In-depth interviews were conducted with 30 student workers in order to understand the everyday life and work experiences of the student-workers on the following topics:

* personal and family background

* high school academic and extracurricular experiences

* university-sponsored work placements and student-initiated term-time employment

* university life in general

* future career aspirations and expectations

* ideas on social issues such as unionism and citizenship.

According to Bessant (2007), qualitative data are especially important in research of this kind:
 While researchers have observed a pattern of reduced attachment and
 commitment to university life and study on the part of students
 working long hours in paid employment, the question still remains:
 how do the students themselves 'make sense' of this experience?
 (p. 32)

In addition, Bessant advocated 'the value of listening to young people talk about their experiences of studying and living without sufficient means'. She explained that the value of qualitative, interpretivist research is not only that it values the voices of the subjects, but that ethnographic material also has value in itself as 'knowledge-making material' (Bessant, 2007, p. 25).

The semi-structured interviews were one-on-one and lasted between 30 and 60 minutes; they were transcribed by a research assistant and then organised into the different themes listed above. The vast majority of these students had left school in recent years, were in their early to mid-20s and were interviewed in their final year at the university. A representative sample of nine student-workers (five females and four males) is featured in the present article.

Literature review

The recent emergence of 'the new student' in UK universities is relevant to the present study particularly in light of the Australian Government's plan to increase the numbers of university students from low SES backgrounds. In a UK study, Leathwood and O'Connell (2003) reported the testimonies of non-traditional students who are likely to form the bulk of the new student population in the foreseeable future. Their paper, in part titled 'It's a struggle', describes the 'hard labour' identified subsequently by Bessant (2007), Robbins (2010) and Munro (2011).

The recent literature from Australia, UK and the USA--the countries where the student-worker phenomenon has gained most attention--covers three main themes:

* the increasing numbers of student-workers at tertiary level

* the negative impact of excessive work participation during term time on student educational attainment

* the effects of student term-time employment on the quality of university education and the university experience more generally.

These themes are subsumed under the two broad schools of thought on the widening participation issue identified by Baker, Brown and Fazey (2006) as the 'sociological literature' and the 'empowerment literature'.

According to Baker and her colleagues, writers associated with the empowerment school invariably individualise and dramatise the negative perceptions of non-traditional students about their experiences in higher education while failing to examine the wider, sociological factors that affect the sector, such as government funding, staffing levels and the pre-university experiences of students.

Baker, Brown and Fazey (2006) rejected the suggestion that barriers are wilfully put in place by higher education staff to make life difficult for non- traditional students (p. 179). It is more accurate to argue, as Archer (2007) did in the case of the UK, that New Labour's widening participation policy was fraught with contradictions in that it privileged neo-liberal, market-driven outcomes while simultaneously promoting a rhetoric of diversity. Baker, Brown and Fazey (2006) conceded that there were some 'empowerment' writers with balanced views that include a call for 'appropriate support and learning opportunities ... to facilitate the progress of non-traditional students' (p. 180).

The present article is written in this spirit and includes research at the author's own campus and elsewhere (for example, Bowden & Doughney, 2010; Gale, 2010; Pearce, Down & Moore, 2008; Thomas, 2002) that focuses on the testimonies of a small sample of non-traditional students.

Who are non-traditional students?

A few years ago, then senior deputy vice-chancellor at Monarsh University, Professor Stephen Parker, spent time as 'a student for a day' in which he sat in on classes, chatted to staff and students and generally observed the everyday campus experiences of a small sample of the student body. He later reported that he was astonished to find many of the students spent as little time as possible on the campus, since most of them had part-time jobs to go to or other commitments to attend to. As a former law academic, Professor Parker had been accustomed to full-time law and medical students who spent most of their day attending lectures, working in the library, studying and perhaps being involved in campus social activities.

It is instructive to contrast the term-time employment of medical students with the non-traditional student experience. In a study by Duggan and Keefe (2007), only 36% of medical students at the University of Adelaide were engaged in term-time employment and then only on weekends and evenings. For the 27% of medical students who worked on average 16 hours per week, the stress on their well-being was reflected in their below-average academic performance, particularly in the final two years of the six-year medical degree (Duggan & Keefe, 2007, p. 58). Robbins (2010) cited a survey by the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee (AVCC) of 18 000 undergraduates in Australia that found that about 70% of the students had part-time jobs averaging some 15 hours per week. Robbins noted that at his own university in regional New South Wales the figures were similar. Like the informants in the present study, these students see themselves as hybrid student-workers rather than as traditional students (such as medical students).

The student-worker phenomenon emerged much earlier in secondary schools in most industrialised countries and was greeted unenthusiastically by teachers and educators who saw the idea of students working while still at school as a threat to a student's academic progress and personal well-being (Greenberger & Steinberg, 1986). High school students tend to be employed during after-school hours, and not during term time as is the practice of many university students. For this reason, educators are unlikely to use the label 'non-traditional student' when referring to student-workers in secondary schools despite the fact that school students who have paid part-time jobs are now becoming the norm in Australia.

In the university sector, the student-worker phenomenon has transformed the concept of the traditional university student. Many of these students are unable to fulfil the expectations of staff who believe that students should be fully engaged scholars whose main responsibility is to study. But most universities have acknowledged the need for students to earn as well as to learn, and for universities to accommodate the needs of students in this category, as they are now commonplace in Australian universities.

More challenging is the capacity to accommodate other non-traditional students, such as those from low SES backgrounds, those with a disability, those from unrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds and those with behavioural or emotional problems. Many of these prospective students will also be part-time and off campus, a grouping that in the author's own regional university comprises about half of the student population. Monash University's Annual Report (2009, p. 25) revealed the following details on non-traditional enrolments: from 2007 to 2008, the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds had increased from 12.9% to 13.4% while rural student numbers increased from 12.9% to 13.7%; Indigenous numbers declined from 0.38% to 0.29%.

No comparable figures are available at the Gippsland campus although it is likely that there are significantly more students in these disadvantaged categories, given the lower entrance scores and the relatively low-income neighbourhoods in the feeder areas. According to Teese (2000), a quarter of youth in Australia leave school before completing Year 12; in regional areas, the rate varies between 5% and 45%. Teese also reports that rural youth tend to leave school much earlier than their city counterparts, usually in the hope of securing permanent employment (2000, p. 51).

In attempting to improve the retention rate to Year 12 in the Gippsland area, the Victorian Government constructed a purpose-built education precinct for Years 11 and 12 in the grounds of Monash Gippsland to encourage students to finish Year 12 and then to continue their education and training at the university and TAFE. The Gippsland Education Precinct (GEP), which has been operating since 2006, has had a patchy record in achieving its objectives. This reflects the generally low number of students in the local feeder government school who received a university offer (average of 44%) and the number who took up the offer (average 26%) between 2003 and 2009 (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (Victoria), 2010).

Students who leave school before completing Year 11 or 12 are often labelled non-academic 'underachievers' and are not expected to be successful at university. Indeed, most students who have completed Year 12 at the Gippsland Education Precinct have not gone on to university. In 2009, for example, of the 118 students who completed Year 12, 55% received a university offer; the government's On Track Data in April 2010 revealed that only 20% of those offered a place were enrolled with 7% deferring the decision. This was lower than two other government schools in the Latrobe Valley--Traralgon Secondary College (29%) and Newborough's Lowanna College (24%). But it should be noted that Year 12 graduates from the GEP were successful in continuing in either education (in TAFE--28%) or training (in apprenticeships--20%) or in employment (18%) with only 6% looking for work in April 2009 (Herald Sun, 2010). Nonetheless, the GEP is one of 43 schools in the list of 470 that are in the lowest 10% in terms of students proceeding to enrolment at university. In contrast, at many Melbourne schools (both government and non- government), virtually every student received a university offer and most enrolled.

Two recent papers focusing on 'regional, rural and remote areas' of Australia have drawn attention to some significant disadvantages of non-traditional students from these locations. Polesel (2009) used the term 'regional' to denote 'non- metropolitan' in contrast to the broader conception proposed by Dalley-Trim and Alloway (2010) who used the term to mean 'regional, rural and remote'. The narrower non- metropolitan definition would seem more pertinent to the present research as the case study university is located in a semi-rural area less than 200 kilometres from Melbourne.

In their Australia-wide interviews, Dalley-Trim and Alloway (2010) found that secondary students clearly understood the 'inescapability of further education' in their post-school lives if they were to move out of their remote towns in search of better opportunities. These students were apparently quite optimistic about their future prospects in their chosen capital city; importantly, the students were in Years 10--12 and the authors did not raise in the interactive interviews any of the challenges the students would face once they had left school.

Polesel's (2009) article considered some of the more common obstacles these non-traditional students were likely to face. His study focused on regional students in Victoria in their second year out of school after having deferred an offer of a university place. The statistical analysis revealed that their rate of deferral was greater by about 10% than that of their metropolitan counterparts. Not surprisingly, those from lower SES backgrounds were less likely than students from higher SES families to take up a university offer after a year's deferral. Several factors explained why deferral was more common in the regions, with financial hardship and distance to education facilities among the most prominent reasons given. Of those who did enrol in a university course, 20% dropped out within a year although the comparative numbers for the regional and metropolitan cohorts are unknown.

While the research by Polesel (2009) and Dalley-Trim and Alloway (2010) revealed some of the challenges likely to face regional students, the focus is on deferrers and secondary students respectively and not on the actual everyday experiences of the enrolled non-traditional student who is the concern of this article.

Widening participation, or 'Wrong way, go back'?

In a possibly unintended play on the concept of 'widening participation', Morris (2009) referred to 'the stretched academy' in the UK, confronted by increasing numbers of mature-age students including economically disadvantaged individuals from working-class and minority backgrounds. Academics in sandstone universities rarely encounter these 'Cinderella students' (Atwood, 2010) who are increasing in numbers in most mainstream universities. Morris suggested that many of these students lack confidence because they fear their earlier, often limited schooling will not equip them to succeed in what they perceive as a bookish, middle-class academic environment. Several comments from interviews in a UK study bear this out; for example, one student referring to his or her peers at a university in Scotland, observed that 'they think they are better than anyone else kind of thing, that's what I don't like about them, they are all so confident' (Forsyth & Furlong, 2000, p. 43). An Australian study suggested that 'one of the lessons that (working-class) young people have discovered was that there are right and wrong hometowns, high schools and attitudes' (Gabriel, 2003, p. 154). This reflects a discovery made by country students this author interviewed on their experiences at the University of Melbourne. Alison (this name, like all others used in the article, is a pseudonym), who was 21 at the time, referred to a variety of student backgrounds confirming this claim without explicitly using the term 'class' although the idea is implied in the labels 'bogans', 'private school kids' and 'country kids':

When you're at [Melbourne] University there's so many different groups of people from different backgrounds and with different interests ... at country schools especially you don't come across that, then you go up to Melbourne to university where there's your private school kids and your country kids and your bogans from the outer suburbs and your overseas students and so many different social groups and you have to learn how to interact with all of them ... (Interview, 2009)

Raelene (23 years) described how class differences affected her studies at the same university:
 The people I was in a tute with were very aggressive, like they
 were obviously intelligent and had a point to prove. I didn't feel
 relaxed ... 'aggressive' is probably the wrong word but they were
 determined to get their point across.

She explained how in oral presentations some students would be a bit intimidating: 'People would jump on you--"well I think you've missed this" was a typical comment from some of the more confident students' (Interview, 2008).

The atmosphere of the big city campus was often referred to negatively in contrast to the more friendly, smaller, rural campus that Peter (early 20s) identified as 'that country thing'--a substitute perhaps for 'that class thing' implied in the above comments and Peter's below:

I had six friends who dropped out of uni after their first semester and they all went to Melbourne campuses. Now I'm not saying that's the only reason why, but ... a pattern that emerged for why they dropped out was that they said they just didn't enjoy going to class and not knowing anyone ... I've found here [at Monash Gippsland] that the lecturers may have consultation hours of 2 hours a week, but if you knock on their door, most of them are willing to have a chat at any time ... I think it's just a general atmosphere--people are more willing to talk, it's easy to make friendships--that country thing. (Interview, 2008)

Alison, Raelene and Peter had all been high achievers in Year 12--sufficient to gain them access to the University of Melbourne in the Law and Arts faculties-- although, as we have seen, they all had difficulties adjusting to the student culture at that university. As Bufton (2003) pointed out, class habitus is reflected in such things as accent and language use, where whether one says 'dinner' or 'tea' is used to identify one's class. The three country students had no difficulty fitting in to Monash Gippsland as they were above average in academic ability and were very confident about their academic skills. At the Gippsland campus the entry scores for most faculties are well below those in Monash's city campus; the experiences of a sample of these 'average' students are therefore important in considering what lies behind the invitations to 'Dream large' (University of Melbourne) and to 'Go boldly' (Monash University). Do these catchy slogans represent an honest attempt to widen the participation of non-traditional students or are they simply rhetorical devices to lure unprepared, unsuspecting individuals into higher education? The issue here for prospective students is to know how to evaluate whether this is a slogan encouraging people to 'come in' when it is really a case of 'Wrong way, go back'. What the widening participation literature says about higher education's impact on the life chances of individuals is therefore of considerable importance.

In a recent lecture published on equity 101, Gale (2010) referred to Arjun Appadurai's (1996, pp. 53-4) view that 'more persons throughout the world see their lives through the prisms of the possible lives offered by mass media in all its forms' (Gale, 2010, cited p. 5). Whatever the origin of their aspirations, Gale (2010) argued that disadvantaged students have the requisite ambition and motivation to succeed in higher education but too often lack the cultural and social capital to fulfil their aspirations (p. 6). He referred to Bowden and Doughney's (2010) study of more than 2000 Years 9-12 students from disadvantaged western suburbs in Melbourne, 70% of whom aspired to enrol at a university (Gale, 2010, p. 5). Gale (2010) made the valid point that students like these were not lacking in ambition but rather in opportunity: 'For those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, desire tends to be mediated by possibility. For those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, possibility tends to be mediated by desire' (p. 5). In the case of high SES students, ambition mediates careers; for low SES students, it is the reverse--available jobs tend to shape their ambition, so that the fear of unemployment will keep many of them in the McJobs of the secondary labour market (Munro, 1989).

At least one writer has advised high school students to 'get a job and keep it', on the grounds that this ultimately leads to greater wealth accumulation over time (Painter II, 2010). This 'bird in the hand' advice has been refuted by any number of studies, including the Business Council of Australia, which reported in a study done on its behalf by Access Economics that tertiary educated individuals earned 40% more than those who left school after Year 12 and 75% more than the least educated (Access Economics, 2005, p. 8). This is a message that is now widespread in developed economies, but fails to resonate with many ordinary individuals who lack confidence or are not interested in further education.

'Going to a posh uni isn't for the likes of us'

While many people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods believe university is not for them, other proudly working-class individuals have refused to accept the kind of fatalism that has had dire consequences for the life chances of their class compatriots. In the UK, Tett (2000) studied a small cohort of working-class community workers who evidently overcame any 'hidden injuries of class' (Sennett & Cobb, 1977) by transforming their story from a narrative of 'people like me don't go to university' to one where they felt more confident about, and entitled to belong to, the predominantly middle-class milieu of the university. It is possible to conclude, for Tett's informants at least, that maintaining the identity of a university student might have been harder for women than for men, burdened as they were by the halo (or yoke) of domesticity. So while Tett's informants were 'working class and proud of it', the females among them had to contend with traditional gender expectations that rendered their status as authentic students more problematic than it was for their male counterparts.

Pearce, Down and Moore (2008) revealed how their informants' life chances were limited by their working-class backgrounds rather than by their abilities or aspirations. Both their individual talents and ambitions, it seems, were dampened by teachers, careers counsellors and the gate-keeping role of formal examinations in working-class schools (Pearce, Down & Moore, 2008, pp. 263-4). Their data suggested that only a minority of working-class students were able to transcend these forms of exclusion. One respondent (Brian) described himself as 'an avid reader' who liked learning things; his curiosity about the world inspired his quest for an education at university--'the place to go to get a better understanding of what is happening' (2008, p. 265). Pearce, Down and Moore identified three main themes from their student narratives (the first of which is encapsulated in Brian's comment): the joy of self-discovery and learning about the wider world; a quest to make the world more just; and, most importantly, to improve their own and their children's life chances. For these students at least, while their high schools may have been unresponsive to their ambitions, they were not prepared to give up on higher education and its possibilities. For this reason, Pearce and her colleagues advocated 'second chance' programs where students come to see their schooling as unfinished business.

Reay, Crozier and Clayton (2010) also described how working-class undergraduates in the UK dealt with the institutional habitus of university life in four different universities, only one of which had a working-class majority. At this university (and to a lesser extent another), the students' sense of security was strong; there were places where they could 'fit in'. Elsewhere their numbers were much smaller and the lack of fit was very obvious to the students themselves and to their peers.

In addition to the theme of 'fitting in', the related issues of learning experiences and identities were discussed by Reay, Crozier and Clayton (2010). In the two universities with the lowest numbers of working-class students, the role of being a university student was the main source of identity for the informants, suggesting that being working class at a university was for many incongruous. According to Reay, Crozier and Clayton (2010), the crucial factor in this was what learner identities individuals brought with them to the university (p. 117).

In Pearce, Down and Moore's (2008) Australian study, 'the avid reader' was an example of a student with a strong learner identity who had little difficulty 'fitting in' to the middle-class, bookish culture of the university. In the UK study, Reay, Crozier and Clayton (2010) found that working-class women, more than their male counterparts, were less confident about even deserving to be at university (p. 118). If self-doubt is gendered, then it is important to ensure working-class women are given every encouragement to take up 'second chance' opportunities whenever they are available. At the Gippsland campus, the majority of students are adults who study off-campus by distance or mixed-mode education. While off-campus students were not interviewed for this article, many phone and email communications with distance education students over the past two decades confirm the experiences of the aforementioned external students in Western Australia and in the UK. These include having strong desires to make the most of a 'second chance' education (the pragmatists), to learn about oneself and the wider world (the traditionalists), to improve their own life chances and those of their children (the aspirationists) and to 'fit in' to the culture of the university (the idealists). This last categorisation refers to those students who want to be seen as 'authentic' university students rather than as non-traditional students.

Among the Monash Gippsland students interviewed for this study, Raelene's story stands out as an example of the 'ideal' student--full-time, engaged and interested enough to want to be a researcher or academic in the future: 'I want to hang out at uni. I love the environment here and I don't see how I'd want to leave'. Raelene's initial experience in studying journalism was quite unpleasant, as noted earlier. But, once she had found her feet, she had nothing but praise for life at university.

Another engaged student had some ups and downs before she settled into campus life. Despite her ambivalence about going to university, Maggie (23 years) had decided that her several McJobs were not going to lead to a satisfying career. When she read of a course on outdoor education and sport, she decided to enrol on the basis of its personal and professional appeal, to her passion for physical well-being and the prospect of a teaching career. Sport and outdoor education combined with a secondary teacher qualification would, she believed, be her best option. Initially, she was disillusioned by the course: 'I really hated my first year; I was ready to quit, it was terrible but second and third year were good and fourth year was fantastic'. She believed the 'terrible' first year was due to her thinking of the university as an extension of high school where you 'just turn up, listen and do enough to pass'. Maggie had a kind of epiphany in her second year when she became 'passionate' about her studies:
 I became really engaged in the classes and started debating with
 the lecturers. It was really intellectually stimulating and I
 didn't mind spending hours until midnight to 2 am looking at
 journals and finding things out. It was brilliant.

Her epiphany about the nature of university learning coincided with what she thought was a personal transformation: 'I don't think I was a critical thinker at all in first year; I was not engaged with uni'. By fourth year, she had found her feet adding that she loved the intellectual challenges of the course and 'having great conversations' with fellow students on camping and hiking activities. The campus gave her an opportunity to earn money organising sporting activities, which helped her to become more confident and experienced in her chosen field of sport and outdoor education and, less directly, in event management.

Kevin (20 years) also had initial difficulties at Monash Gippsland. He lived on campus in first year but this didn't work out. He spent three days a week commuting by car to university and had only a few days on campus. As a student-in- residence, he had enjoyed the university experience:
 Gippsland is a small university ... it's different from the high
 school in terms of teaching style--lectures, tutorials, but there
 were about 15-30 people in my school classes and it's much the same
 here in my tutes.

The local country campus at Monash Gippsland was Alison's first choice after leaving school: 'I wasn't ready to leave friends and family down here. I don't really like the city, so this was it, a 20-minute drive from home'. Alison (21 years) initially found university life not to her liking:
 It was totally different; it wasn't my scene at all. In first year,
 everyone was keen on going out but all the boys seemed to be about
 three or four years younger than the girls. I just found it rather
 an immature place to be. Everyone was just interested in getting
 blind drunk ... it wasn't my scene.

Initially she enrolled in science and information technology as a double degree. She 'hated' the latter but liked science, and majored in environmental management and biology along with some electives in history and politics, subjects she did for 'general interest'. Adding to her disappointment about the beer-drinking culture that seemed to prevail at the campus was the complicated issue of gender; there was a hint of 'not fitting in' to the class as a young woman in a science degree where most of the students were male.

'It's a lot of hard work'

Norton and Brett (2011), both university professional staff, recently drew attention to the challenges facing undergraduates in Australian universities:
 First-year students in particular face issues such as the weight of
 constantly assessed performance, moving away from home, the need to
 manage practical life matters such as finances and accommodation
 (usually for the first time), uncertainty about pathways, the
 complicated process of engaging with other students, university
 staff, and large impersonal institutions. (p. 27)

Many of the students in the present study described their dual role as student and worker as hard work, noting how they found it difficult to strike a balance between university, part-time work and their social life. Alison was a science student who has since taken up a rewarding job for which she is well qualified and feels she has earned. She explained that she had been working part-time since she was 14. Like virtually all tertiary students she had financial difficulties paying her way through three years of full-time study for a science degree:
 If I didn't have two or three jobs I couldn't have done it ... if I
 had a bill and couldn't pay, Mum and Dad would help, but I didn't
 want them to pay for stuff. I worked and managed, I suppose, but
 there were a lot of times I just didn't have any money. You know,
 how am I to get to uni? I've got no petrol in the car, that sort of
 thing ... For a bit there, I had five jobs, for about 25 hours a
 week on average.

Alison claimed that her substantial commitment to term-time employment did not adversely affect her studies, although she admitted missing lectures when the opportunity to earn money came up. She is a good example of a student-worker who, having survived the grind of long hours of study and work, feels a sense of pride that could perhaps be interpreted as a post hoc rationalisation. Most people, it seems, like to put the best gloss possible on difficulties they've overcome in the past.

Such a characterisation did not apply to Chris, whose self-described role as a 'breadwinner' makes him an atypical student-worker. Because he needed to support his family, he worked 20 hours a week in a factory, which he understandably found very stressful on top of his studies:
 I had to do that amount of work in order to keep my mind at peace,
 in order to do what I was doing, because without work, there's no
 way I could have done uni.

Chris would not have been able to study unless he was fulfilling his obligations as the family's 'breadwinner'. His work and study commitments had a significant impact on his well-being. Larry had similar concerns trying to make ends meet:
 A couple of times I've had to work all night, 16-hour shifts
 sometimes, no-one else works that much. It's a long day, and I
 don't get paid any extra, just the hours. You're meant to get paid
 more if you work over the 12 hours ... that didn't happen.

Both employers and their casual staff know that unjust treatment of student- workers will rarely be challenged and, if it is, employers will simply find a more compliant employee. Some students, such as Tess, were upbeat about their university and work roles:
 I know there were a lot of people in my course who lived at home
 and didn't work at all, and it would be naive of me to think that
 they didn't have quite a lot of advantages in regards to time, but
 I also know how I work and ... working a lot made me utilise the
 time that I did have to do uni work effectively--I think I could
 have got better grades had I not worked as much and studied more,
 but I don't know if I'd have enjoyed it as much.

She said she couldn't recall ever missing a class because of her job and can't recall ever getting an extension on an assignment. She believed 'the busier you are the more you utilise the time you have got'. But Tess's experience is not typical, as most student-workers find themselves in a dilemma. As Bessant (2007) pointed out, there is a catch-22 in combining study and work; her sample of student-workers--like some in the present study--'talked of working so they could study, but they couldn't study because they had to work' (p. 32).

Bessant, who has herself written extensively on student poverty, cited the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, (AVCC, cited in Bessant, 2007) that surveyed all Indigenous students and a representative sample of non-Indigenous students in 37 public universities, in support of her qualitative data on student poverty. The AVCC noted that two-thirds of the income of full-time undergraduates came from their paid, part-time jobs and more than half (54%) of part-time students and 40% of full-time students thought their term-time employment negatively affected their studies (AVCC, cited in Bessant, 2007, p. 31).

There have been numerous media reports about university students at all levels struggling to make ends meet. Akerman's (2009) profile of a 19-year-old science student at the University of Adelaide is one such piece that described the difficulties faced by young undergraduate students from rural areas. The student was receiving a Youth Allowance of $10 920 per year, of which half went on accommodation. The rest of the money was not enough to fund her everyday living expenses, study materials and the like. Her story is fairly typical of young undergraduates who live away from home and incur substantial debts as a result. Such financial hardship leads to a high drop-out rate, often accompanied by mental illness (Norton & Brett, 2011).

Retention: Creating an appetite for education

As we have seen, Raelene, Maggie, Kevin and Alison all had some initial misgivings about their university experience but were prepared to stay the course with the result that they are confident about their futures. The first-year experience of university is seen by educators as the most crucial for determining a student's likelihood of staying or leaving. As we saw with Alison, Chris, Larry and Tess, there is considerable pressure on students to find a sustainable balance in their work and study roles. Student-workers in other studies have also highlighted the challenges inherent in these roles (Bessant, 2007; Leathwood & O'Connell, 2003; Munro, 2011; Robbins, 2010).

The students profiled in the present study come from modest family backgrounds and moderately disadvantaged rural neighbourhoods. Once they overcame some initial tensions, they were able to complete their degrees quite satisfactorily. According to Edwards (2008) conscientious students from low SES families and locations in working-class suburbs usually achieve better results in their first year at university than their more privileged peers from private schools and more salubrious suburbs--a fact that should encourage a greater uptake of capable students from working-class backgrounds.

Retention in higher education has become an important issue for university managers and academics struggling to maintain a critical mass of students on campus and in various undersubscribed courses. In Australia, it is estimated that just 15% of students are from low SES backgrounds, compared to 25% in the population as a whole (Dobson & Birrell, 1998, p. 84, cited in Kantanis, 2006, p. 19; Gale, 2010, p. 3). The Australian Government--acting on a recommendation in the Bradley Review (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent & Scales, 2008)--has announced an ambitious goal to increase the participation of students from low SES backgrounds to 20% of all undergraduates by 2020 and the proportion of 25-34 year-olds acquiring a bachelor's degree to 40% by 2025. The success of this goal will ultimately depend on how well the circumstances and needs of non-traditional students--especially rural residents, student-workers and part-time, mature-age students--are understood and accommodated. The increasing number of people from diverse backgrounds aspiring to a university education has generated some difficult challenges for university staff.

Doing more with less in 'the stretched academy'

At city campuses, particularly the elite sandstone universities, the traditional student is often perceived as the 'authentic' student--'the "authenticity" of the "normal" young white middle-class student is maintained at the elite "real" universities' (Read, Archer & Leathwood, 2003, p. 268). Recent changes at the University of Melbourne have led to an increased focus on the education of graduate students-- entrenching even further the notion of the 'authentic' university student. The university plans to offer more disadvantaged students access to their programs, but its location on the edge of the Central Business District makes it difficult for ambitious and talented students from distant disadvantaged locations to attend the university, even if they gain admission.

Read, Archer and Leathwood (2003) have described an additional obstacle confronted by disadvantaged, non-traditional students at elite tertiary institutions, which they labelled 'the culture of academia' (p. 269)--a term that encompasses epistemological and pedagogical practices, conventions such as academic styles of communication in writing and speaking, and the physical size and complexity of a university. Although the bureaucratic maze is negotiated with relative ease by the more confident middle-class students, they too can find the academic world quite daunting.

On the positive side, Thomas, (2002) in a paper on 'the role of institutional habitus', has listed seven factors that can raise the level of student retention. All but two of these factors--the student's preparedness for university study and the need to engage in term-time employment--are within the capacities of university managers and academics to implement. But the two really important issues of academic preparedness and income support can only be tackled by the school systems and government respectively.

An additional burden for the less academic, non-traditional student is what Read, Archer and Leathwood (2003) referred to as the 'distance' between student and lecturer in many large universities, where students are expected to be 'independent learners' and, more recently, 'consumers' of academic products or 'customers'. Relabelling students in this way reflects a trend towards the further commodification of education and helps to create a climate where the customer must be satisfied and the discourse of consumer rights is becoming more prevalent: 'I'm paying for this, I want my money's worth' (Read, Archer & Leathwood, 2003, p. 274). Students whose goal is to get through their studies with a minimum of effort are known to have adopted the motto 'Ps get degrees' (pragmatists); increasingly, some full fee-paying students hope that 'fees mean degrees' (customers).

While such comments suggest that many students are not authentic scholars, they need to be interpreted in the context of the contemporary politics of higher education. Morris's (2009) notion of 'the stretched academy' has its equivalent in Bowl's (2001) discussion of students as 'frustrated participants' in the UK's higher education institutions. Bowl described how non-traditional university students are typically seen as 'battlers' struggling against the deprivations of poverty, tutor indifference, institutional marginalisation and lack of time. In Australia, both 'the stretched academy' and the 'frustrated participants' in higher education are faced with the prospect of continuing pressures to do more with less. According to Dobson (2010), the number of students in Australia's 38 universities increased by just over 100% between 1989 and 2007 while the teaching staff increased by only 33%. Overseas students made up 26% of the expanded student body, casual lecturers constituted more than half the academic staff and the student--teacher ratio has increased from 14 to 21 (Dobson, 2010, p. 31). Dobson rightly attributed this imbalance to the parsimonious funding provided by governments from both sides of politics.


This article has focused on regional on- and off-campus students and especially on 'full-time' student-workers. It has not detailed the circumstances, even more difficult, faced by Indigenous students and students with severe disabilities, who are rare in number at any university. Most of the students surveyed and interviewed in this project have come from predominantly working-class families and rural neighbourhoods. They are non-traditional only in contrast to popular perceptions of the typical university student; and most of them are more accurately described as student-workers who hold down both full- and part-time paid jobs during term time.

The fact that the student-worker has become the norm in Australian universities has recently been recognised by university managers and education authorities. The much-anticipated Bradley Review (Bradley et al., 2008) for example, included a brief section on the financial circumstances of higher education students in Australia and noted that about 70% of full-time undergraduates were engaged in part-time work that provided two-thirds of their total income. The Bradley Review recognised that students have to 'survive' on their income from these jobs and in many cases--particularly for the one in six who worked more than 20 hours a week--this negatively affected their studies as well as their university experiences more generally. As a result, Bradley and her colleagues (2008) concluded that the government's widening participation agenda for underrepresented groups would not succeed without more generous levels of financial assistance (pp. 49-51). Scholarships, reduced fees and refunds for other expenses such as textbooks and travel costs would help students take full advantage of the university experience. But in the absence of financial support, slogans such as 'Go boldly' and 'Dream large' are misleading for the increasing numbers of students from regional areas, low SES backgrounds and other disadvantaged minorities who may not be able to 'survive' if, as 'customers' and 'consumers', they are required to pay their own way. Unless significantly greater support is provided to these students, it might be more appropriate to replace the seductive slogans with the more appropriate road sign warning: 'Wrong way, go back.'


on-campus students

student attitudes

non-traditional students

barriers to participation

academic staff

part-time employment

DOI: 10.1177/000494411105500203


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Lyle Munro

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Lyle Munro is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology & Social Research at Monash University, Gippsland.

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Date:Nov 1, 2011
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