Those closely involved in higher education teaching and learning today understand well that our students are no longer primarily on-campus school leavers. Close to a quarter of all commencing domestic students now study online and rarely set foot on campus. More than one in three of all commencing undergraduates are over 21, more than one in ten are over 30 and about a third are part-time.

When we look specifically at online students, we find a much higher concentration of older, part-time students, as well as higher proportions of women, those who are first in their families to attend university, and those from equity backgrounds (of low socio-economic status, regional and remote, Indigenous, and with disability). In short, the typical online Bachelor level student is female, aged over 25, studying part-time, with significant family and work commitments. More than likely she is also first in her family to go to university.

Students, both on-campus and online, are now very diverse: in age, experience and knowledge and with highly varying levels of social, educational and economic capital. However, university policies and processes are still too often designed with full-time school-leavers in mind, allowing insufficient flexibility for the many others who do not fit in this box.

It is no accident that the student characteristics of mature-age, part-time and online correlate strongly with a higher risk of attrition. For these students, other pressing responsibilities such as employment and caring for family, must often be prioritised over their studies. A more inclusive approach by universities, that acknowledges the diversity of today’s student cohorts and seeks to understand and accommodate the realities of students’ lives, is increasingly required to facilitate greater equity in student success.

Dr Cathy Stone

Conjoint Associate Professor, Social Work, University of Newcastle, Australia

Adjunct Fellow and 2016 Equity Fellow, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University, Australia

[email protected]


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