November 19, 2014 Nick Preston

I Belong Program

I Belong is a program of on-campus experiences for SNAP secondary school students designed to grow aspiration for tertiary education. I Belong offers an innovative approach to discipline exploration through applied workshops, presentations from industry experts and peer-delivered transition modules for students attending selected SNAP partnership schools.

Objectives of the Intervention

I Belong builds on the existing partnership of RMIT with dedicated secondary schools as part of the Schools Network Access Program (SNAP) in order to inspire and build tertiary engagement of students in secondary schools. It aims to:

  • Grow aspirations among students in secondary education through on-campus city experiences and discipline-themed activities
  • Introduce and unpack employment outcomes made possible through tertiary education
  • Grow a sense of belonging in and opportunity for access to the tertiary environment

Origins and rationale of this initiative

I Belong builds on the existing and successful partnership between RMIT and secondary schools in in the north west, south east of metropolitan Melbourne, and in East Gippsland. As such, it responds to a local need, in particular of those secondary schools with the highest concentration of disadvantage as well as schools forming part of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.

At the same time, I Belong is embedded in a wider strategy of increasing social inclusion as laid down in RMIT’s Equity and Social Inclusion Plan 2011-2015. This strategy responds to various internal and external drivers (see point 5 below).

Target groups intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

I Belong targets students from low socio-economic background (LSES) in line with the Federal Government’s aim to increase participation in higher education specifically from this target group. In addition, it targets indigenous students.

To this end, I Belong focusses on secondary schools forming part of the Schools Network Access Program (SNAP) and in particular those with the highest concentration of disadvantage as well as schools forming part of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.

Political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

In 2009 the Federal Government implemented recommendations of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education, with the aim of Australia maintaining its position as one of the most educated and skilled workforce in the world.

Two key targets are now shaping equity policies and programs in higher education:

  • Australian Graduate Profile; by 2025, 40% of 25 to 34-year-olds will hold a Bachelor Degree.
  • Low SES (socio-economic status) Participation in Higher Education; by 2020, 20% of higher education enrolments at undergraduate level will comprise people from low SES backgrounds.

Every university has established individual equity group participation targets through their Commonwealth Compact Agreements. Commonwealth funding from the Higher Educational Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) has been provided to assist universities in meeting national and institutional equity goals.

Besides that, RMIT’s Equity and Social Inclusion Plan 2011-2015 identifies the following key internal and external drivers, which influenced its efforts with regard to increasing equity and social inclusion:

  1. Federal participation and attainment targets and specific institutional targets set in the Compact Agreement for low SES and Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) cohorts as indicated above
  2. Commonwealth and Victorian Government targets for tertiary participation and attainment in response to skill and labour market participation needs
  3. student demand driven and contestable funding systems in the new tertiary space
  4. the expansion of transnational education and globally mobile staff and student populations
  5. Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program opportunities to widen and deepen systemic engagement opportunities for disadvantaged cohorts
  6. the National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy, which shapes and influences RMIT’s approach to deliver real outcomes
  7. the Wurreker Strategy (State Government) and Indigenous Education Program (Federal Government), drivers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation
  8. Universities Australia’s Strategy for Women 2011–14 (in which RMIT is a key partner), which supports the recruitment and employment of women across the University
  9. the Australian Technology Network Women’s Executive Development Programs, offering opportunities to strengthen the involvement of senior women at the University.

Overall Programme design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

The I Belong program pursues a distinct approach for students in Years 9 and 10 of secondary education (Middle years) and students in their final two years of secondary education, namely Years 11 and 12 (Senior years). The program responds to the student lifecycle and key academic and developmental transition points. It seeks to make students familiar with university and city life in general and the RMIT campus in particular. It introduces them to the programs offered by RMIT, provides discipline and industry knowledge as well as career opportunities. Moreover, it seeks to facilitate the transition to tertiary study.

The I Belong program for students in Year 9 and10 focusses on applied learning experiences that reference RMIT’s key industry partnerships and unique position as an urban university of technology and design. This is done through I Belong Campus Experience. These activities allow students to:

  • discover and explore a university campus
  • demystify disciplines, careers and tertiary programs
  • experience the city as an exciting and accessible hub of industries and opportunities.

The activities of the I Belong program for students in Year 11 and 12 build on students’ discipline and career knowledge, with particular concentration on equipping them to succeed in tertiary education. This is done through I Belong Discipline Tasters and I Belong Professional Development. Students undertake practical workshops on topics including time management, becoming an independent learner and choosing a tertiary program. These activities aim to facilitate students’:

  • transition to tertiary studies
  • discipline and subject exploration through a master class model
  • study skills
  • career exploration and development.

The activities of the I Belong Program are facilitated by SNAP Ambassadors, which are current RMIT tertiary students who applied successfully through the SNAP priority access scheme. These ambassadors are paid employees of RMIT, and contribute to I Belong through the delivery of interactive presentations focusing on demystifying the transition from high school to university and Technical and Further Education (TAFE), and dispelling myths and misconceptions about tertiary education.

Describe if the project ensured its sustainability

The longstanding and close cooperation and partnership between RMIT and the secondary schools forming part of the Schools Network Access Program (SNAP) contributes to the sustainability of this new project of RMIT.

Moreover, with reference to Baumeister and Leary (2005), Morieson et al (2013) highlight the importance of belonging as human desire that exceeds the desire for self-esteem and self-actualisation. Morieson et al (2013) suggest that this desire is particularly strong for students from LSES backgrounds, for whom the experience of higher education is especially alien. Therefore, the involvement of SNAP Ambassadors, who are LSES students themselves, is instrumental in ensuring the sustainability of the project, by facilitating the belonging of LSES students through peer-to-peer experiences and exchange. It is, therefore, not surprising that their contribution to activities and expert knowledge about the student experience is regularly cited by participating students and teachers as a highlight of I Belong activities.

Resources used in the initiative

I Belong senior years is funded through the HEPPP competitive partnership grant, and supplemented by RMIT’s allocation of all partnership funds to support the I Belong middle and senior years programs.

Besides that, SNAP Ambassadors, who are involved in the implementation of the activities as mentioned above, are paid employees of RMIT, and contribute to I Belong through the delivery of interactive presentations focusing on demystifying the transition from high school to university and Technical and Further Education (TAFE), and dispelling myths and misconceptions about tertiary education. Many of the SNAP Ambassadors have been successful in RMIT’s allocation of $1.6 million in equity scholarships.

Did the intervention reach its objectives?

RMIT’s Equity and Social Inclusion Plan 2011-2015 foresaw the development of curriculum and program modules for implementation between 2011 and 2015 that would reach 1000 middle-year students per annum on campus for taster and city exploration activities aligned to pathways to and between programs and RMIT’s distinctive position as a University of technology and design.

The programme appears to exceed these expectations, given that in 2013, over 2,000 students participated in I Belong programs on RMIT campuses.

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