Jackie Pichette — Rethinking Access: What we heard and what comes next
By 2025: Every Ontario student has an equitable opportunity to attend and succeed in postsecondary education.
HEQCO’s long-term goal for access to higher education was front and centre at our 2017 conference, Rethinking Access: When non-traditional is the new normal. It was also the focus of a conference first for us: a hands-on, interactive workshop, where we asked participants to tell us which issues we ought to explore to advance our 2025 access goal. Once the issues were, quite literally, up on the wall, we held a “dotmocracy.” With only one red sticker each, participants were asked to mark the area of research they felt HEQCO ought to address most urgently. Here’s what we heard.
No data, No problem, No solution
Perhaps you’ve heard it from the Ontario Human Rights Commission or students themselves, “no data, no problem, no solution.” Our workshop participants agreed with the sentiment and were unequivocal: we need demographic-based data at all levels of the education system. We couldn’t agree more.
HEQCO will continue to advocate for and facilitate data collection and analysis. We will form Community Research Networks, convening K-12 and postsecondary institutions alongside community organizations on a regional basis to pool data and reveal stories about who is and who is not accessing higher education, where barriers exist and how they can be brought down.
Strive for systempathy
In her keynote presentation, Pathways to Education Canada founder Carolyn Acker spoke of “systempathy” — the idea of efficient, high-functioning systems that embody human empathy. Her message resonated with workshop participants.
The runner up in our dotmocracy was the need to understand and address the systemic barriers that prevent students from accessing meaningful and efficient pathways from one credential to another. Are groups of students being systematically barred from pursuing certain paths as a result of course selection in high school? Can we build more effective bridges between programs and across institutions to facilitate credentialing and ease financial burdens? What impact does diversity (or lack thereof) among institutional leadership and faculty have on student access and success? Will the OSAP transformation impact Ontarians’ perceptions of the affordability of higher education? These are some of the questions our workshop participants have planted in our minds — and we will be exploring them.
Intervene before and after the point of entry
We know access to higher education doesn’t start at the point of entry and success is not guaranteed thereafter. Workshop participants encouraged us to do more to understand the stories and circumstances of students and identify the moments that can be game changers. They encouraged us to test and evaluate interventions to ease admissions processes, address diverse learning styles and instil confidence in younger students.
At HEQCO we have been testing interventions to support student retention in partnership with the six institutions involved in our Access and Retention Consortium. Reflecting on what we heard from participants, we’re inviting new projects to the table, including those that support students in getting through the door. We’re also working with community groups, such as the Hamilton Community Foundation, to understand how targeted supports offered during the middle school years can support achievement later on.
What comes next?
As we continue to work towards our ambitious 2025 goal, we at HEQCO will make use of available data to continuously explore the question of who is and is not going to postsecondary. We will push for more and better data. We will wrap our heads around the concept of systempathy and endeavour to understand how Ontario’s education system can embody that. And, in collaboration with partners in higher education, the K-12 sector and community organizations, we will continue to evaluate interventions aimed at supporting access to and persistence in higher education.
As a final thought, many of our conference panelists, and in particular our keynote Gabrielle Scrimshaw, reminded us that a single teacher, professor, guidance counsellor or peer can be a positive force for change. Whether you’re an uncle sending his niece a postcard from Stanford inviting her to dream, a teacher signalling that her classroom is a safe and supportive environment for all students, or a researcher willing to work with us in piloting a project to help students feel they belong — your actions may be life-changing moments for one student, if not many.
We’ve posted several of the conference presentations, as well as a few photographs, so please visit our updated conference website.
Jackie Pichette is a senior researcher at HEQCO and a member of the conference team.