Towards equity: a study of non-traditional students’ experiences of engagement with their learning in their first year at university

Gungadurdoss-Ramjaun, Nalenie (2023) Towards equity: a study of non-traditional students’ experiences of engagement with their learning in their first year at university. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


This research examines non-traditional students’ experiences of engagement with their learning in their first year at university, in relation to equity. In the context of the increased participation of students traditionally underrepresented in higher education, the Review of Australian higher education (Bradley et al. 2008) indicated the need to improve quality in Teaching and Learning by enhancing student engagement. The review recommended that student engagement be used to measure student satisfaction, given this reflects teaching and learning and by extension university performance. Thereafter, the focus has been on engaging students for success and retention. The paradox is that as the numbers of non-traditional students have increased in higher education, they appear to continue to be associated with a discourse of deficit, rather than with what they contribute to higher education. This thesis contends that the normative tendencies at institutional level in student engagement could have a level of responsibility in not adequately addressing the capacity of these students, hence amplifying inequities towards them. The further contention in this research is that, in its close association with policy to educate for a knowledge economy, this student engagement tradition seems not to have fully considered the potentials of non-traditional students as human beings in relation to the broader world, with the possibility to make a difference for greater equity in society. This research, emancipatory in inclination, uses Bourdieusian theory with alternative forms of capital, flexible habitus and field, for equity. First, the experiences of the non-traditional students emerged inductively through Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). Interviews were conducted with six non-traditional students who had completed their first year to give them voice on what mattered to them in their experiences of engagement with learning in that year. The results obtained from data analysed were then tied to theory, with Bourdieu’s concepts and the literature on student engagement and the first year. These non-traditional students showed their capacity to enact a successful first year amidst challenges encountered in negotiating their engagement with learning in the dominant university field. The capital, identity and knowledge that they deployed in the process called for recognition by the university. These students enacted a form of equity that applied to the individual in the market economy, but did not extend to the larger context of society as a broader outcome of their education. In addition to recognition, this research suggests the need for criticality in student engagement to allow non-traditional students the possibility to become part of the life of society, with a perspective on a better and more equitable world. Critical student engagement could encompass power sharing in classroom processes, collaborative enquiries with the reciprocity of care, and questioning issues for an in-depth understanding of the world. The findings in this research, while bound to the group studied, are intended to open up different ways of thinking about non-traditional students in student engagement. Practitioners can apply what is relevant to their own context of work with non-traditional students. At a theoretical level, using the voice of non-traditional students and Bourdieu’s concepts adds depth to current research related to these students. Overall, with recognition and criticality as ways ahead, this research highlights ongoing equity issues in higher education.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Current > FOR (2020) Classification > 3903 Education systems
Current > FOR (2020) Classification > 3904 Specialist studies in education
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Keywords learning; university; first year; equity; higher education; quality; teaching; student engagement; Bourdieusian theory
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