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An electronic journal for leaders in education
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The Bridges to Higher Education initiative

Annette Cairnduff
Annette Cairnduff is Chair, Bridges to Higher Education, and Director, Social Inclusion, University of Sydney

Participation in higher education has positive, life-long and community-wide impacts. Those who have qualifications are more likely to have financial stability, improved health, stable relationships and regular employment (Owens 2004). However, secondary students are much less likely to go onto higher education if they come from a low socio-economic background, or from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, or if they live outside one of the metropolitan centres.

After the 2008 Bradley Review the Australian Government set two targets: to increase participation in higher education among school leavers to 40 per cent, and to raise the number of students from low socio-economic backgrounds to 20 per cent of the total.

To meet this latter target, the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) was established; it provides resources to encourage universities to recruit and retain students from low socio-economic backgrounds as well as motivate and inform a new generation of students to consider and prepare for university attendance.

The Bridges partnership

Government incentive schemes to recruit and retain students from low socio-economic backgrounds could, and in many cases have, led universities to compete with one another for students, particularly from target schools. In Sydney, a group of universities recognised the need for a different approach: through collaboration with each other they could build stronger relationships with schools and communities, and have real and lasting impact on the educational attainment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2009, these universities in Sydney began meeting regularly to discuss the issue of widening participation in higher education. Through 2009 and 2010 the group consulted with schools and communities and began working together on a project targeting parents. In 2011 the group successfully applied, through HEPPP, for funding to support a collaboration of increased scope and scale.

The result is known as Bridges to Higher Education (Bridges) – a partnership of five universities: the University of Western Sydney, the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, Australian Catholic University, and the University of Technology Sydney, working with schools and communities, TAFE, professional organisations, and key government and non-government agencies. The partnership includes around 80 projects, and in the year 2012 alone participating universities worked with more than 260 schools and had 30,000 engagements with students, parents and teachers.

It is easy to think that participation in higher education is a matter of individual ‘choice’ or that if students themselves work hard or smart enough, within the standard school environment, this transition will naturally occur. What the evidence tells us, and what the Bridges program recognises, is that a student’s decision to progress to higher education is the culmination of various school and life experiences that have shaped their enjoyment and engagement in learning, their personal motivation, academic confidence and preparation, and their understanding of the value of higher education.

The operation of the Bridges program

The Bridges program is based around several intersecting strategies intended to address educational disadvantage in Sydney and across NSW. These include:

  • Early Intervention. Beginning with primary school is important, since research shows that students begin to conceptualise themselves and their future before they reach high school.
  • Sustained engagement. Partnering with schools to build strong relationships builds a sense of connection between school and university, and provides opportunities for cumulative engagements, making the university environment more familiar to secondary students.
  • Supporting educational preparedness. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds who have enrolled at university often say they feel less prepared than their peers. Certainly many schools with high levels of disadvantage are not in a position to provide the sort of support more advantaged schools can and do. Advanced classes, tutoring and university preparedness programs help to address this inequity.
  • Engaging whole cohorts. Primary and high school students’ peer environment has a powerful influence on individual students’ decision-making. It is therefore important to create a culture of high expectation throughout whole-year groups or whole schools, rather than focus on individual ‘talented’ students.
  • Parental support. Students are twice as likely to go to university if their parents want them to, and more likely to achieve the marks they need if their parents support them. It is therefore important to demystify the university for the parents of disadvantaged students. Parents need to understand the value of higher education for their children, the way their children can get into university and access support, and the value of their own ongoing support for their children’s academic success.
  • Teacher support. Teachers working in schools with high levels of disadvantage encounter particular challenges. When teachers are supported with professional development, partnerships and resources, they can better prepare their students to enter higher education and succeed.
  • Community development. Universities aim to work with communities to address and support local needs, building their own reputation in the process. One form of this work is to support those community members who are already encouraging young people to consider university study.

Many of these strategies are implemented via individual universities within Bridges. Ongoing communication helps ensure that these are coordinated, and also assists the group in sharing ideas and learning from one another.

Key cross-university projects

There are also several projects shared by the consortium. These include resources with national application, such as Models of Achievement, a television series of inspiring stories from determined Australians pursuing a career through higher education. Aimed at students aged 14 years old and up, Models of Achievement shows the pathways to higher education taken by people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been successful in diverse life goals. Enquiring Minds, a television series for primary school students, features a range of interesting topics to awaken curiosity and broaden students’ knowledge. Experts share their experiences in each episode. The series is complemented with curriculum-linked teacher lesson plans and resources, an online game and a website that maps the path through university to reach all the exciting careers.

In April 2104 the consortium will launch a website that has been developed in conjunction with all the universities in NSW, as well as the University Admissions Centre; the website will provide information about university study, pathways and opportunities.

More information on the projects being run by Bridges is available on the website at www.bridges.nsw.edu.au/projects.

Early indications of success

Ongoing evaluations of the Bridges program have been commissioned from KPMG. A preliminary report published this year (KPMG 2013) provides early indications that Bridges is contributing to positive outcomes for students, parents, teachers and schools.

Students are showing a stronger knowledge of and interest in university, an improved motivation to continue to year 12, greater confidence in their academic abilities and study skills, a sense of being better prepared for university, and a stronger motivation to continue on to university study, following participation in a Bridges program.

Parents are reporting increased academic expectations in their children, and improved knowledge of the higher education options and of the benefits associated with higher education.

Teachers are reporting that professional development provided via the program is expanding their teaching practices and improving their skills in their discipline of focus.

One of the key outcomes of the Bridges’ program is strong and enduring partnerships with schools. These partnerships are implemented on a local level, making it easier for schools to utilise the projects most appropriate to their particular circumstances.

Most importantly perhaps, Bridges is also contributing to an aspirational culture within schools. The KPMG evaluation indicates that sustained involvement of university students, staff and alumni in schools has shifted student perceptions on a school-wide level.

The Bridges partnership is led by a management committee, which meets monthly. It is advised and supported by a Partners Advisory Group with high level representation from the NSW Department of Education and Communities; TAFE NSW; Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils; Macarthur Regional Organisation of Councils; the Universities Admissions Centre; Catholic Education, Parramatta; Association of Independent Schools of NSW; NSW Secondary Principals Council; The Smith Family and the Country Education Foundation of Australia.


Working collaboratively across the higher education and school sectors, the consortium partners are starting to see an impact from the Bridges programs. Ongoing evaluation will ensure continued improvement. This work has momentum, and is part of ensuring that all young people, whatever their social background, have every opportunity to make informed decisions about their education futures.

For further information please visit the Bridges website www.bridges.nsw.edu.au.


Bradley et al. 2008, Review of Australian Higher Education Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, http://www.innovation.gov.au/highereducation/ResourcesAndPublications/ReviewOfAustralianHigherEducation/Pages/ReviewOfAustralianHigherEducationReport.aspx

KPMG 2013, Evaluation of Bridges to Higher Education, Preliminary Report.

Owens, J 2004, A review of the Social and Non-Market Returns to Education. Education and Learning Network, Wales. http://libserver.cedefop.europa.eu/vetelib/nat/gbr/ngo/2004_0004_en.pdf


Subject Headings

Socially disadvantaged
Tertiary education
New South Wales (NSW)