Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Looking at university life through the lens of youth: Encouraging high schools to gain a new angle on post-school options

Jenny Silburn, Student Academic Support
Lynne Hunt, School of Nursing and Health
Edith Cowan University
This paper outlines a project entitled, Race around Edith Cowan University (inspired by the Australian Broadcast Corporation program Race around The World) which encourages high school students to play an active role in investigating and researching what it means to make the transition from high school to university. The uniqueness of the project is that it seeks to empower students to identify for themselves what school-leavers would like to know about university life and record their impressions of Edith Cowan University in four-minute documentaries. These will be screened and judged by a panel of experts at a gala night. An important aspect of the project is a mentoring program where Media Studies students from ECU will facilitate students' access to, and understanding of, university life. It is hoped that in sharing ideas about the process, a discussion about active learning and the value of mentoring will take place. Pilot findings from the pre-program questionnaire are discussed. These describe high school students' knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about university and their perceptions of their eligibility and desire for post-secondary education.

What is Race around Edith Cowan University?

This project was inspired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) program, Race Around The World, the producers of which selected young Australians to travel the world making documentaries for screening on Australian television. The documentaries were judged by experts and the winner received a prize. The key features of the Race Around the World program included participation, empowerment and knowledge enhancement. These principles also underpin Race Around Edith Cowan University.

This action research project is designed to address the problem of low-transfer rates to Edith Cowan University (ECU) from particular schools in the northern suburbs of Perth. One reason for low transfer rates to university may be that high school students have little knowledge of university life and few opportunities to experience first-hand what universities may offer in terms of courses, student life and access to particular career paths. Some universities have tried to solve this problem through the production of documentaries about first year university life, but they have tended to focus on matters considered important by university staff. The uniqueness of this project is that it to seeks to empower students to decide for themselves what school-leavers want to know about university life through the production of their own documentaries.

Secondary school students in Years 11 and 12 will be assisted by third year Media Studies students from ECU who will act as mentors to groups of students. The university students will visit the schools on four different occasions and give their mentees information about the university, assist in the selection of material and share their expertise about making documentaries. These documentaries will then be judged by a panel of media experts at a gala event to which all participating schools will be invited. Prizes will be awarded to the school who produces the best documentary and all students who participate will receive an acknowledgment of their involvement. The documentaries will then be edited into a composite program about ECU and offered to high schools for use in the Year 10 Vocational Education classes.

A pre and post program questionnaire has been designed to ascertain whether any significant shifts in attitude occur as a result of participation in the project. Data obtained from these questionnaires will be used to evaluate students' knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about university life and their eligibility and desire for post-secondary education.

The questionnaire has already been piloted at two independent schools, both of which have a high transfer rate to university. A secondary aim of the project is to compare the questionnaire findings of students attending high and low-transfer schools. The data from the study is likely to be of value in improving the university's marketing to attract a diverse range of students.

Aims and objectives

The aims of Race Around Edith Cowan University are to: The knowledge objectives of Race Around Edith Cowan University are as follows. At the end of this project participating high school students will know: The skills objectives of Race Around Edith Cowan University are as follows. At the end of this project participating high school students should be able to:

How is the project funded?

This project has been funded by an ECU Equity Grant and is aimed at low transfer schools in the northern suburbs. At present about a dozen schools have expressed an interest in the project. Prizes are being sought from various businesses in the northern corridor and thus far we have been fortunate in having a video camera donated. Negotiations are also underway for the donation of video editing equipment.

How does this project exemplify best practice?

In this project, teachers, students (both secondary and tertiary) and members of the community are given the opportunity to collaborate and establish interconnections. Through this kind of active collaboration we hope to break down barriers and cross boundaries both culturally and artistically. Culturally, this is occurring through a cross fertilisation between secondary and tertiary cultures and the business community and artistically, through the integration of art, music, drama and film to tell stories which have the potential to effect change. One of the strengths of the ABC Race Around the World was that it offered young people another vision, a sense of a reality greater than the one they encounter on a day to day mundane level. It enabled the participants and the viewers to become global citizens and often presented a picture of the extraordinary potential of human beings. We need to create spaces for storytelling and give young people opportunities to grow and connect with the wider community.

In short, we think that this project exemplifies best practice insofar as it combines research and creative works with teaching and learning, whilst establishing a connection with, and service to, the community.

Student questionnaire pilot

We have piloted a student questionnaire which elicits information about secondary students attitudes, beliefs and understandings about university life and what universities have to offer. Some of the results are of interest. This questionnaire was given to Year 12 students from two high transfer independent schools, an all females school and an all males school.

At the second national First Year Experience Conference held in November 1998, Associate Professor Owen Watts, from the Centre for Educational Advancement at Curtin University made some interesting observations about the demographics of university populations across Australia. Currently women outnumber men at universities across Australia by 56% to 44%.

In Western Australia, school leavers who choose to go to university are younger than their national counterparts by approximately 6-12 months. Compared to the United Kingdom, our students are 18 months to two years younger. The questions we need to ask are:

Our pilot questionnaire findings indicate that are significant differences in the way males and females in secondary schools are thinking about their post-secondary education options. I will tease out just a few of these and ask you to consider their implications.

Figure 1

This graph shows students' responses to the question, What do you expect to be doing during the first year after completing high school? Eighty one percent (81%) of females indicated they were intending to study at university, whereas only 65% of males said they expected to proceed to university. Whereas 18% of males said they intended undertaking a TAFE course, only 8% of females indicated an intention to study at a TAFE college.

Figure 2

In response to the question, If you are not planning to attend university in the next few years, is this because?, it can be seen that 43% of males believe that the job they wish to secure does not require a university degree, whereas only 22% of females claimed this to be the case for them. Many more males (38%) than females (17%) thought that their marks were not good enough to gain entry to university. Females choices to attend or not attend university by contrast, were influenced by friends to a much greater degree than were males (56% as opposed to males 19%)

Figure 3

Another gender difference is apparent in males and females responses to the question Which people have influenced or encouraged you to attend university? Parental encouragement influenced females to a much greater degree than males. 90% of females claimed that parents had influenced their decision to attend university whereas only 76% of males cited their parents as a significant influence. Teachers too appeared to have played a more influential role for females with regard to attending university (49% for females as opposed to 31% for males). Friends had a greater influence on females as opposed to males; 62% of females were influenced by friends whereas only 38% of males were influenced by friends.

Figure 4

In response to the question, Which of the following universities have you visited?, 88% of females had visited the University of Western Australia (UWA) while 76% of males had also visited the campus. By contrast only 41% of females had visited an ECU campus with 31% of males claiming that they had visited an ECU campus.

Figure 5

When asked, Which of the following universities in WA would you prefer to study at?, most students give UWA or Curtin University as their first preference and Notre Dame and Edith Cowan Universities as their last preference. However, there were also some gender differences in their statement of preference. These could be accounted for by a number of possible explanations. For example, this might be due to particular courses favoured by men or women only being available at certain universities. Alternatively, it may be a function of the way in which the universities market themselves.

Figure 6

Another significant gender difference was observed in response to the question, What percent of your school's year 12 students do you think are likely to enrol at university next year? Females thought that 89% of their cohort would be attending university, whereas males thought that 81% of their year would select university as first option. This is an interesting projection because from their own report only 65% of males indicated that they theselves would be attending university, whereas 81% of females said that they would be attending university.


This action research project is multifaceted insofar as it provides students from high schools opportunities to investigate (in a non-threatening environment) what a university has to offer and gives them the agency to determine what aspects of the university are of interest to them. In addition, it enables high school students to collaborate with students from the university in a creative endeavour. ECU Media Studies students stand to benefit as they are given an opportunity to develop leadership skills and share their expertise and knowledge with younger students. Overall whilst this project has involved a great deal of backstage work in the form of establishing copyright principles and negotiating with the schools and the local businesses, it promises to be an engaging, creative and exciting enterprise for all concerned.

Please cite as: Silburn, J. and Hunt, L. (1999). Looking at university life through the lens of youth: Encouraging high schools to gain a new angle on post-school options. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 378-382. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/silburn.html

Figures 1-6 were not available at the time of preparation of the Proceedings.

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