ALTF Student Success Series | All change now… considering the transformative potential of university attendance.

4th April 2018

Student success blog

The Australian Learning and Teaching Fellows network includes Australia’s leading higher education scholars, who bring a wealth of experience in evidenced-based approaches to support student success and high-quality learning and teaching.

In recognition of this expertise, we have created the ALTF Student Success blog: a forum for Fellows to share their insights and contribute to the national higher education conversation. The blog is published on a monthly basis, with special out-of-round editions released in response to hot topics.

This month we hear from Fellow Associate Professor Sarah O’ Shea from University of Wollongong, NSW.

In the sharing spirit of the ALTF, I wish to return to a theme from Sally Kift’s inaugural ALTF blog and consider how one key theme relates to my work with students derived from a range of equity groups. Sally eloquently described how for many employed in university teaching and learning spaces ‘what gets us up in the morning is an abiding belief in the transformative power of education’. Personally, this recognition of the transformative potential not only gets me up in the morning but also, has repeatedly led to a focus on research that places student voice front and centre. Over the last decade, I have undertaken various in-depth studies that seek to deeply explore how learners themselves perceive and narrate their higher education participation. This approach is deeply rooted in a belief that in order to understand student experience we need to focus on those best placed to reflect upon this – the students themselves.

When considering the notion of  ‘the transformative power of education’, I am particularly reminded of older learners I have interviewed; most had taken a circuitous route to higher education, speaking to numerous twists and turns encountered before reaching their educational destination. In many cases, attending university had been a long-held dream or ambition, sometimes hidden or vanquished to the backstage areas of their lives. Often, it was an unexpected catalyst or event that led to their attendance, with the personal and public changes that ensued largely unanticipated.

Such transformations took many different guises; for some, university offered the possibility for variations in financial security or employment opportunities but equally, students spoke to the changes that occurred in identity formation and also, in relation to their relationships and networks. Essentially, university transformed them at the most fundamental level, this was ‘felt’ in an embodied sense, an opportunity to not only realise dreams but also to ‘be’ someone else. For example, one group of female caregivers, who were all first in their family to come to university, reflected how their perceptions of self and others had fundamentally shifted. Indeed for a number, university had unexpectedly offered the chance to try on different identities and guises.  At 38, second year student Aleisha explained:  “For me, when I go to uni, I’m not mum, I’m not wife, I’m not child – I just get to be me when I’m there.  That’s what I really like about it”. While for Donna (39) attending university had literally changed the course of her life, she described how: ‘It’s lit me up again – I’d very much lost my way…’[1]

image by soren-astrup-jorgensen via unsplash

Importantly, such transformations were rarely limited to the learners, but instead those around them also felt the repercussions of this attendance, it rippled out impacting on others in many and varied ways (O’Shea et al, 2017). Indeed it was this intergenerational impact that underpinned my 2015-2016 Australian Learning and Teaching Fellowship, which was informed by affiliated research (O’Shea, May, Stone & Delahunty, 2014-2015) that revealed the importance of family in supporting and retaining this first in family cohort. In surveys (n= 171) just over 70% of respondents indicated that it was to the family they turned when they encountered difficulties or considered departure. Yet family members reportedly had little to do with the university or had limited prior knowledge of the institution. Such insights led to the development of the Overarching Principles and Strategies For Supporting First-in-family Students and their FamiliesThese Principles were developed as part of the Fellowship, in consultation with stakeholders from across the HE sector. Simply, they are designed to inform productive and meaningful relationship building both with learners and those who accompany them on this educational undertaking.

We know unequivocally that university trades on the benefits it offers learners. This is generally presented in terms of improved employability, new knowledge and of course broader skills base. All of these are commendable objectives; indeed Dawn Bennett’s previous ALTF blog provides insights into how student success and employability might be reconsidered. Equally though, universities need to be more aware of the unforseen and deeply personal transformations that learners encounter on these educational journeys. As West (1996) points out, higher education participation importantly provides an opportunity for individuals to ‘compose a new life, a different story and a more cohesive self’ (p.10). Yet the deeply personal repercussions resulting from such changes often remain silenced in neo-liberal university discourse, instead the rhetoric of fiscal imperatives and measurable outputs predominates.

With the demand driven system being dismantled, the opportunity for many to experience such transformations will undoubtedly be foreclosed. So perhaps, more than ever, we need to foreground this personal and embodied change in our research, our teaching and in our own academic narratives. If, as Sally Kift describes, it is the potential for transformation that gets you up in the morning then remaining mindful of how university both impacts on learners but also potentially extends into the household and the broader community remains vital. Such  ‘transformative potential’ is best articulated by students themselves and so, I end with one such quote, some inspiration perhaps for those of you who may be struggling in these challenging times:

I was 18 and was unable to read and write, then I met my partner and he was the one who helped me, then I went on to do a numeracy and literacy course for three years, after this I went on to do a bridging course … then went on to University. I first want[ed] to do uni to show people that I can but then it become more […] a way for me to build self confidence and self worth.

(Female Final year Student, 31-40, Survey Response)

If you are interested in hearing more about the research with first in family students currently occurring please sign up for the e-newsletter at or follow the Twitter feed: Uni_FiF

If you have a question or comment for Sarah, please join the conversation on our LinkedIn page.


O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2015). Breaking the Barriers: supporting and engaging mature age first-in-family university learners and their families. Available from :

O’Shea, S., May, J., Stone, C., & Delahunty, J. (2017).  First-in-Family Students, University Experience and Family Life: Motivations, Transitions and Participation. London: Palgrave Macmillan

West, L. (1996). Beyond Fragments: Adults, motivation and higher education.  A biographical analysis by Linden West. London: Taylor and Francis.

[1] All student quotes in this piece are derived from research affiliated with ARC Discovery Project “Capitals and Capabilities: Rethinking higher education persistence” (DP170100705: O’Shea, S (2017-2019)) .