Evaluating equity initiatives in higher education: Processes and challenges from one Australian university

Greer Lamaro Haintz, Sophie Goldingay, Renee Heckman, Tanya Ward, Rojan Afrouz, Kelly George


As part of the Australian Government’s ‘Widening Participation’ agenda, the Higher Education Partnership and Participation Program (HEPPP) provides funding for universities to develop interventions to support the aspiration, access, participation, retention and successful completion of higher education among students from under-represented groups. There is an increasing emphasis on evaluating these interventions to demonstrate their effectiveness and to inform future program planning, particularly in the context of decreasing HEPPP funding over the coming years whereby universities will be required to make decisions about how to prioritise those funds. Quantitative data provides important information about population trends. However, understanding the more complex impacts on students’ lived experiences of higher education is important, albeit challenging. This paper provides a discussion of an approach to evaluation undertaken by a research team at Deakin University to assess the cumulative and intersecting impacts of a range of HEPPP funded initiatives on students’ experiences of higher education. The socio-ecological approach adopted to explore the complexity of impacts on student and staff experiences, and institutional culture and practices, was guided by Bourdieu’s theory of habitus. The challenges of undertaking this kind of evaluation are also discussed, as well as recommendations to inform future approaches.


equity initiatives; evaluation; socio-ecological; widening participation; higher education

Full Text:



Acevdo-Gil, N., & Zerquera, D. (2016). Community college first year experience programs: Examining student access, experience and success from the student perspective. New Directions for Community Colleges, 175: 71-82.

Australian Department of Education and Training. (2015). Indigenous participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Retrieved 15 February 2017 from https://docs.education.gov.au/documents/indigenous-participation-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-disciplines

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW]. (2014). Towards a performance measure framework for equity in higher education. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Behrendt, L., Larkin, S., Griew, R., & Kelly, P. (2012). Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Final Report. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Bennett, A., Naylor, R., Mellor, K., Brett, M., Gore, J., Harvey, A., James, R., Munn, B., Smith, M., & Whitty, G. (2015). The Critical Interventions Framework Part 2: Equity Initiatives in Australian Higher Education: A review of evidence of impact. Newcastle: The University of Newcastle.

Bexley, E., Daroesman, S., Arkoudis, S., & James, R. (2013). University student finances in 2012: A study of financial circumstances of domestic and international students in Australia’s universities. Canberra: Universities Australia.

Bexley, E., Harris, K., & James, R. (2010). Group of Eight Framework for Evaluation of Equity Initiatives. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social space and symbolic power. Sociological Theory, 7(1): 14-25.

Burke, P.J., Bennett, A., Burgess, C., Gray, K., & Southgate, E. (2016). Capabilities, belonging and equity in higher education: developing inclusive approaches. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Burke, P.J., & Lumb, M. (2018). Researching and evaluating equity and widening participation: Praxis-based frameworks. In P.J. Burke, A. Hayton & J. Stevenson (Eds.), Evaluating equity and widening participation in higher education. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books.

Clark, T. (2008). We’re over-researched here! Exploring accounts of research fatigue within qualitative research engagements. Sociology, 42(5): 953-970.

Cribb, A. (2015). Operating from different premises: The ethics of inter-disciplinarity in health promotion. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 26(3): 200-204.

Cunninghame, I., Costello, D., & Trinidad, S. (2016). Issues and trends for low socioeconomic status background and first-in-family students. In Facilitating student equity in Australian Higher Education (pp. 4-13). Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Dockery, A. (2013). Cultural dimensions of Indigenous participation in vocational education and training: New perspectives. Adelaide: National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).

Edwards, D., & McMillan, J. (2015). Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Fleming, M., & Grace, D. (2016). Best practice in supporting Indigenous students with disability in higher education. Canberra: The University of Canberra.

Fredericks, B., Kinnear, S., Daniels, C., Croftwarcon, P., & Mann, J. (2015). Path + Ways: Towards best practice in Indigenous education. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

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

Glass, K.C., & Kaufert, J. (2007). Research ethics review and Aboriginal community values: can the two be reconciled? Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 2: 25-40.

Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M., Lyell, A., Ellis, H., & Fray, L. (2015). Choosing university: The impact of schools and schooling. Final Report to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Newcastle: Teachers and Teaching Research Program, The University of Newcastle.

Grbich, C. (2007). Qualitative data analysis: An introduction. London: Sage.

Habel, C., Whitman, K., & Stokes, J. (2016). Exploring the experiences of low-SES students via enabling pathways. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Harvey, A., McNamara, P., Andrewartha, L., & Luckman, M. (2015). Out of care, into university: Raising higher education access and achievement of care leavers. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Hatt, S. (2007). Measuring success: A guide to evaluation for Aimhigher. United Kingdom: Aimhigher evidence good practice group.

Hayton, A., & Bengry-Howell, A. (2016). Theory, evaluation, and practice in widening participation: A framework approach to assessing impact. London Review of Education, 14(3): 41-53.

Houston, D., Meyer, L.H., & Paewai, S. (2006). Academic Staff Workloads and Job Satisfaction: Expectations and values in academe. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 28(1): 17-30.

Ijsselmuiden, C., Kass, N., Sewankambo, K., & Lavery, J. (2010). Evolving values in ethics and global health research. Global Public Health, 5: 154-163.

James, N., Busher, H., & Suttill, B. (2015). Using habitus and the field to explore Access to Higher Education students’ learning identities. Studies in the Education of Adults, 47(1): 4-20.

King, S., Luzeckyj, A., McCann, B., & Graham, C. (2015). Exploring the experience of being First in Family at university. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Koshy, P., & Seymour, R. (2015). Student equity performance in Australian higher education (2007 – 2014). Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Lamaro Haintz, G., Graham, M., & McKenzie, H. (2015). Navigating the ethics of cross-cultural health promotion research. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 26(3): 235-240.

Li, I., & Carroll, D. (2017). Factors influencing university student satisfaction, dropout and academic performance: An Australian higher education equity perspective. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Lim, P. (2015). Do individual background characteristics influence tertiary completion rations? Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.

Low, R. (2015). Raised parental expectations toward higher education and the double bind. Higher Education Research and Development, 34(1): 205-218.

Luzeckyj, A., King, S., Scutter, S., & Brinkworth, R. (2011). The significance of being first: a consideration of cultural capital in relation to “first in family” student’s choices of university and program. A practice report. The International Journal of First Year in Higher Education, 2(2): 91-96.

Meuleman, A.M., Garrett, R., Wrench, A., & King, S. (2015). ‘Some people might say I’m thriving but …’: Non-traditional students’ experiences of university. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(5): 503-517.

Naylor, R., Baik, C., & James, R. (2013). A Critical Interventions Framework for advancing equity in Australian higher education. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne.

O’Shea, S. (2016). Avoiding the manufacture of ‘sameness’: First-in-family students, cultural capital and the higher education environment. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education Research, 72: 59-78.

Pitman T., Harvey, A., McKay, J., Devlin, M., Trinidad, S., & Brett, M. (2016). The impact of enabling programs on Indigenous participation, success and retention in Australian higher education. In S. Larkin, J. Frawley & J. Smith (Eds.), Indigenous pathways and transitions into higher education: from policy to practice (pp. 235-249). Singapore: Springer.

Pitman, T., & Koshy, P. (2015). A framework for measuring equity performance in Australian higher education. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education and Training.

Reed, R., & Hurd, B. (2014). A value beyond money? Assessing the impact of equity scholarships. Studies in Higher Education, 41(7): 1236-1250.

Scheirer, M.A. (2012). Expanding evaluative thinking: evaluation through the program life cycle. American Journal of Evaluation, 33(2): 264-277.

Smith, J., Trinidad, S., & Larkin, S. (2015). Participation in higher education in Australia among under-represented groups: what can we learn from the Higher Education Participation Program to better support Indigenous Learners? Learning Communities: International Journal of Learning in Social Contexts. Special Issue: Indigenous Pathways and Transitions into Higher Education, 17: 12-29.

Universities Australia. (2015). Submission to the review of HEPP. September 2016. Canberra: Universities Australia.

West, L., Fleming, T., & Finnegan, F. (2013). Connecting Bourdieu, Winnicott, and Honneth: Understanding the experiences of non-traditional learners through an interdisciplinary lens. Studies in the Education of Adults, 45(2): 119-134.

Zacharias, N. (2017). The Australian student equity program and institutional change: Paradigm shift or business as usual? Executive summary and recommendations. Retrieved 25 May 2018 from https://www.ncsehe.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Nadine-Zacharias_Executive-Summary.pdf

Zacharias, N., Cherednichenko, B., Ryan, J., George, K., Gasparini, L., Kelly, M., Mandre-Jackson, S., Cairnduff, A., & Sun, D. (2016). Moving beyond “acts of faith”: Effective scholarships for equity students. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.


Banner image: Kira Jovanovski (2020), movement score 01 (detail): oil stick and acrylic on paper. Photograph by Kira Jovanovski. Cover image: Kira Jovanovski (2020), grunt_iteration 02 in the boughs and stamped: installation in University Gallery. Photograph by Jedidiah Cranfield. (c) the artist.





This journal is published on the lands of the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People.

ISSN 2653-245X