Pathway for disadvantaged students

A doctor looks at an x-ray

A team of researchers from La Trobe Rural Health School have designed and evaluated the course aimed at providing an additional pathway to tertiary education for students who may otherwise not have undertaken university studies.

Head of Department, Health and Environment, Dr Virginia Dickson-Swift said the project reflects the University’s commitment to increasing the number of regional and rural students, indigenous students, refugees and students from low SES (socio-economic status) backgrounds. It also supports the Federal Government’s aim to increase participation rates of this cohort in tertiary education.

Dr Dickson-Swift said the Diploma opens up another pathway for people who may otherwise not have undertaken tertiary education. She said the course was designed to articulate directly into the Bachelor of Health Science and Bachelor of Nursing programs and has achieved that aim.

‘By the end of 2012, 80% of the students had successfully completed the Diploma. All of these students have gained course transfers either through the competitive course transfer process or the standard pathway,’ said Dr Dickson-Swift.

‘Students who completed the Diploma have gained transfers to the Bachelor degrees in nursing and health sciences and also a number have been successful in competitive transfers to the combined Bachelor/Masters degrees in occupational therapy, exercise physiology, paramedicine, social work and the highly sought after physiotherapy program.’

Diploma of Health Science graduate, Cettina Boyer exemplifies the success of the course. Ms Boyer is now undertaking a Bachelor of Health Sciences/ Master of Paramedicine degree.

‘If I had applied to university through traditional channels I would have had to complete extra study through VCE or TAFE. Instead I was able to do an entry course equivalent to completing the first year of study at LRHS’ said Ms Boyer.

Ms Boyer said that support and flexibility were important because she has a young child. ‘I and others often brought our children to class, which the teaching staff accepted and encouraged.’

Support that leads to student success

Many of the students overcame an initial lack of confidence and described the course as a life changing experience that gave them access to a world of opportunities that they had never thought possible:

‘And I never ever thought that I would get into something like that’ (Kylie – not her real name). ‘I don’t know it has just changed my life for the better’ (Justin – not his real name). ‘When I didn’t get in to Nursing, I was totally gutted and I didn’t know what to do and now, well now I have got my nurse’s uniform and I got to wear it the other day and yeah like I went “yes, this is me, this is my dream” ‘ (Amy- not her real name).

Dr Dickson-Swift said that the focus of supported learning within the course provided students with an opportunity for personal growth, growing confidence and learning in a supportive, group environment.

‘The Diploma was designed with high levels of administrative, academic and social support and many of the students spoke about the levels of support provided by the staff, which enabled them to make smooth transitions to tertiary study.

‘It’s wonderful to see this group of students from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds respond to the empathy and personalised care shown by the staff and particularly the coordinators who supported them academically and socially.’

Asked if they would recommend the course to others, student responses were overwhelmingly positive, describing the Diploma as ‘a gold mine.’ Many of the students interviewed had faced traditional barriers to higher education and were pleased that the course provided them with an alternative pathway.

A message for career advisors 

Dr Dickson-Swift said the challenge facing staff is to raise awareness of careers advisors to this alternative route to higher education. She said course coordinators will be visiting local schools and careers advisors throughout 2013 to remedy the situation.

‘The success of the course at La Trobe University Bendigo has initiated discussions about introducing the Diploma to the University’s Albury-Wodonga, Mildura and Shepparton campuses.

‘With the current global focus on widening participation and retention in higher education, courses like the Diploma of Health Science that provide high levels of academic and pastoral support can be a useful model that may be transferable to other contexts across the sector.’

The research paper ‘You actually believe in yourself’: The Diploma of Health Science as a pathway for disadvantaged rural and regional students will be published later this year. It will also be presented at the International First Year in Higher Education Conference to be held in Wellington, NZ in July.


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