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Building bridges between high schools and universities: The 'Seamless Partnership' Program

Philip Reece
School of Business, Information Technology and Law, Murdoch University
Daniel McGill
School of Engineering, Murdoch University

Introduction: Another brick in the wall

"We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control. No dark sarcasm in the classroom! Hey teacher... leave them kids alone!"
(Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's The Wall, 1981)
These are a few lines from Pink Floyd's influential, and groundbreaking, 1981 concept album, "The Wall". It painted a dark, if somewhat surreal, image of a Britain that is in terminal decline. The people live in fear. The policies of the government, of the day, are seen to be repressive and highly draconian. Worst of all, the educational standards were sinking to such a state that the students were actively opposed to being educated sufficiently, and thereby being enlightened, to change the situation and to create the opportunities for the future. This class consciousness and antipathy, or at least apathy, towards higher education has been a feature of the community life in the Rockingham and Peel districts for some time. Partially due to the British background, and educational experiences, of many of the immigrants who settled here and partially the availability of work, along the 'Kwinana strip'. Thus, as soon as a young person finished their secondary education, the lure of employment ensured that only a small number progressed onto higher education. Such that it is now well known that, this region has one of the lowest participation rates in higher education, in Australia, and it was for this reason, among many, that Murdoch University took the step of establishing its Dixon Road Campus, as its first regional campus.

Over the first four years of operation, the campus numbers, in most areas, grew slowly if not credibly; however, with the appointment of a Campus Principal and a number of full time academic staff, in key areas, the numbers began to increase, even more. In discussions with the Campus Principal, the two authors and a number of High School Principals and Deputy Principals, the Peel Education and Training Campus it became evident that, these individuals were seeking to change two things. First the culture of the local senior high school (SHS) is such that students there perceived that higher education was not just for an elite group, but rather was inclusive of them, too. Secondly, that the expectation of them, personally, being able to participate in higher education changed from possibility, to reality. From these two changes it was seen that this would help to increase the participation rate of Rockingham and Peel District SHS students in higher education. However, this alone was deemed to be insufficient and to this end, the authors were involved in developing the 'Seamless Partnership' program designed to assist high school leavers. The concept of the 'Seamless Partnership' program grew out of the discussions between the Deputy Principal of Rockingham SHS, Mary Margetts, and the Rockingham Campus Principal, Peter Lee. After the initial conversations the Associate Head of School, Philip Reece, met with Mary Margetts and developed a blue print for the introduction of year 12s onto the Rockingham Campus. This was intended to be a phased introduction of the year 11 and year 12 students into the Commerce Program, covering two subjects each year during years 11 and 12. Thus allowing a year 11 student to study both at secondary and tertiary levels, simultaneously and complete up to four units of his/her tertiary study.

In later discussions between the Associate Head of School and the Principals and Deputy Principals of Rockingham, Safety Bay and Warnbro SHS, the focus on Commerce was changed. This was to allow students to enter into a tertiary study program that would allow a student to take, in effect, any direction they chose to their tertiary studies as it was seen that this original approach was too restrictive. What follows is the program in its original form:

Year 1 of the 'Seamless Partnership' Program

First semester

    A1507 Reinventing Australia
Second semester
    C1697 Principles of Marketing
Year 2 of the 'Seamless Partnership' Program

First semester

    A1057 Introduction to Information Technology
Second semester
    C2407, Organisation Management and Development (for commerce students)
    Or

    B106 Fundamentals of Computer Systems

The focus on Commerce subjects, while being consistent with the original brief, was seen to be too restrictive and therefore did not suit the needs of students, some of whom may wish to take on a degree that did not have a Commerce foundation or outcome. To that end, the proposal was changed to start the 'Seamless Partnership' program with a single unit, A1157 Interactions of Society and Technology, one of Murdoch University's Foundation units and to trial the program in first semester only of 2001. This led to the next phase in developing the 'Seamless Partnership' program, that of generating support both from the student population within the three SHSs, their parents, the high school teaching staff, the community and the Academic Council governing Murdoch University's academic requirements. It was with a certain level of trepidation that the next phase was entered into; for as yet, there was only a limited amount of feedback on the overall acceptance of the program.

The Call to Arms

On the evening of the 28th of September, 95 people, high school students, parents, teachers and campus staff were in attendance at the public meeting, to discuss the problems associated with such a trial. The Campus Principal, Peter Lee, addressed the gathering and pointed out the requirements, risks and opportunities of proceeding with the 'Seamless Partnership' program. The reason for this was to ensure that all present understood the ramifications of accepting the proposal and putting the program into action. To this end, he went on to explain to the audience exactly what was involved.

Peter outlined the requirements for successful completion of the foundation unit, A1157 Interactions of Society and Technology. These included a minimum attendance requirement of 9 out of the 13 tutorials, completion of the initial tutorial induction program to assist these SHS students to deal with the problems of studying at higher education, and being assessed by the same criteria as a first year student at university would. Peter outlined that the risks included the likelihood of failure, the difficulties that year 12 students would face in studying on campus and attending lectures with the general student population and the problem of accommodating both tertiary and secondary studies, simultaneously. Especially in view of their levels of maturity and life experiences, being considerably more limited than the average university student, even if they were only a year or two older. Finally, he pointed out the opportunities to be had for a student embarking on this course of study. This included the successful completion of a university unit of study, the unit being used as a 'subject' to determine their highest aggregate mark for their TER and that, successfully completing the unit would allow them to gain advanced standing when seeking entrance to the Rockingham Campus.

The reaction to this was nothing less than amazing. Our expectation was that there would be a significant number of naysayers, who would significantly effect the perception of the rest. The truth of the matter was the exact opposite. The vast majority of the audience, while openly accepting and discussing the possible negative aspects of the program, accepted that the program had far more advantages than disadvantages and as such, they were openly supportive of it. So much so that few, if any, of them, be they student, parent, teacher alike, had a bad word for the program and resoundingly accepted the program, even with all the possibilities of failure and other unwelcome outcomes. On the night, there was a strong indication that as many as 45 students from the three SHSs, Rockingham, Warnbro and Safety Bay, wanted to become part of the program. In our original deliberation we had estimated that the number was, at best, likely to be 20 students from the three. The sheer numbers likely to be involved was something that caused us to stop and re-evaluate the situation, especially as we had to accommodate the timetable needs of the three SHS.

As the three SHSs all had a common time when they had a 'half' day, it was imperative that we align the Foundation unit timetable to match their needs. This was in line with our original intention of having the students on campus for the lecture component. To facilitate this, we have timetabled the Foundation unit to run at a time that allows the students to leave their respective SHSs and attend the lectures. In our original planning, we had envisioned, and decided, that the three schools would run their own tutorials on their own school grounds, on a rotational basis, and thus have contact on the campus only for the lecture. On reflection, as well as reviewing the demand, our further discussions led us to conclude that this was more likely to create needless problems that could be more easily avoided, by having the tutorials on the campus. That, in turn led to another problem, that of having the university staff to tutor them and, at the same time, not reducing the teaching hours thereby the job security of SHS teaching staffs. To this end, we elected to take another innovative approach.

In further discussions, the argument was advanced that the existing SHS teaching staff, degree qualified teachers, provided that after completing the tutors induction course, they attend the lectures each week, that these teachers could best tutor the SHS students. The rationale here, was that it would allow the SHS students the certainty of dealing with someone that they already knew and at the same time, we could ensure that there would be consistency, and equity, in our dealings with the all the students studying on our campus. This was deemed to be an essential element for ensuring the success of the program, especially in view of the age and relative levels of maturity of some of the year 12 students. The maturity of these students was seen as a problem in dealing with the independent manner and more research focussed outcomes, of university study. Primarily as the difficulty of making the required mental leap is considerable and, perhaps for some highly difficult; to this end the comfort of a familiar face, would go some way to alleviate the problem. Thus with these things set in train, the scene is set for the first of our 'Seamless Partnership' programs to commence, however the story does not end there.

Not Another Brick in the Wall

The purpose of the 'Seamless Partnership' program is not merely altruistic. It has a far more pragmatic, though some would argue from a pedagogical view it has a far more dangerous, purpose. The purpose, in these times of economic rationalism and devolved responsibilities, is to put more 'posteriors on seats' and ensure the survival of the Rockingham Campus as a viable economic entity. That said, and as crass as it may seem, it has to be recognised as a valid, if somewhat grubby, reason for doing so. Nonetheless, the pedagogical reason cannot be overlooked either. For by giving these secondary students the opportunity to sample university study and, to some extent, university life, we are in fact adding to their life long learning experiences. It is also not axiomatic that all these students will in fact continue on to further university study at all, nor necessarily at this university, or even the Rockingham campus. However, it does give them a better set of paradigms from which they can make a more intelligent, and informed, decision about their future directions.

Once having the means by which to make such a comparison, then they can choose form a wide variety of options including paid employment, further study at TAFE or university, whether at Murdoch or another institution. The early introduction of the possibility of university study, to students who indicate both a willingness and desire to proceed, if only experimentally, down that path also encourages them to mature at a faster rate, but still in an environment that is not too threatening. This is essential when we consider the need for Australia, as both an economy and a nation, to ensure that it has sufficient people in its current and future workforce, who are suitably educated to take on the new jobs, yet to come. By allowing year 12 students the opportunity to sample this life, we are not only enriching their educational and life experiences, allowing them to make a more informed and intelligent choice we are also reducing the, somewhat, extravagant failure rate of students in their first year at university. This, even from a purely economic perspective is a luxury that Australia can no longer enjoy, and here we borrow a racing term, as we have to ensure that every 'post's a winner'.

It also ensures that in making a choice, we are allowing students the choice of not becoming another brick in the wall and, that the opportunities that the university is creating for their future, is the most viable one for them. This has to fit into the primary ethos of all universities, that of ensuring that the education of individuals is not merely just a vocational exercise, that leads to better paid employment, but one that leads to higher, critical thinking that advances their society as a whole. Also, that the educational experience is of a quality and standard that allows each individual to develop to their fullest potential, especially in developing the critical skill of learning how to learn; something no person alive in this country today, can be successful without, long term in any field of activity.

We at this stage are uncertain as to exactly how successful the 'Seamless Partnership' will be. The indications are that the SHS students, their parents and the community at large see this as both a positive and proactive step forward, in ensuring that they are successful as future university students. We are now planning to implement a further support system, for the year 2001, that will bring Year 10/11 SHS students onto the Rockingham campus for a week of intensive lectures and tutorials and prepare them in advance for the following years attendance in the foundation unit. We are also planning to extend the choice of units to include an introductory unit, in the use of Information Technology, to be offered to the year 11s in second semester of 2001 and allow them to have completed two units, prior to sitting their TEE. This is seen as the next logical step in ensuring that the transition between secondary and tertiary education is both seamless and a partnership between these two levels of education.

References

Andersen, L. (1994). Five fatal fallacies about studying at university. HERDSA News, 16(2), 3-7.

Grant, B. (1997). Disciplining students: The construction of student subjectivities. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 18(1), 101-114.

Morgan, A. (1993). One student's experiences: From first year to graduation. In Improving Your Students' Learning: Reflections on the Experience of Study, 14-26. Kogan Page. London.

Vivekananda, K. and Shores, P .(1996). Introduction, Joseph: A strong finisher, and Maria: Doing what you can. In Uni is easier when you know how, 3-5, 13-17, 30-35. Hale and Iremonger, Sydney.

Please cite as: Reece, P. and McGill, D. (2001). Building bridges between high schools and universities: The 'Seamless Partnership' Program. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/reece.html


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