Australia-wide mentorship programs structured for equity students reported exceptional performance against evidence-based benchmarks. Mentorship programs offered by 39 universities were mapped across three stages: enabling, engagement and employment. All of the surveyed equity group programs demonstrated good or exemplary practice. Seven recommendations were made for university practice in relation to mentoring programs and further research, including an examination of the specific support for disadvantaged students during and nearing course completion.
Universities have used various programs, including those involving mentoring, to support students from groups that are underrepresented in higher education – ‘equity groups’. While mentoring has been shown to have benefits for all students as well as those from equity groups, research has typically examined programs in one university or for one particular equity group and little is known about the extent of such programs across Australian universities.
Objectives and methodology
The project had three aims:
- to create a map showing the extent to which mentoring programs are used in Australian universities to support students from the different equity groups during the different phases of university life: enabling, engagement and employment
- to examine the extent to which features of a cross-section of programs aligned with existing best practice in mentoring guidelines and benchmarks
- to point to areas that need further research or that could inform current practice.
Research was conducted in two stages:
- Stage One: Existing websites and publications were systematically searched to determine how many mentoring programs existed in 39 Australian universities. These could be general programs that would include students from disadvantaged groups, or programs that explicitly targeted equity groups.
- Stage Two: University contacts from programs explicitly targeting equity groups were invited to complete a survey detailing features of the programs related to aspects such as program aims and structure, selection and support of mentees and mentors and program evaluation.
Key findings and recommendations
Stage One revealed 203 mentoring programs that either could include students from equity groups or were equity-focused. Most general programs were aimed at the engagement phase of university life where students are in the process of studying in their courses. Most equity-focused programs occurred in the enabling phase where the aim is to raise aspirations and facilitate enrolment at university, and most of these programs targeted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) students.
In Stage Two, surveys from 12 programs covering four states and all equity groups were analysed against combined best practice benchmarks, with programs overall achieving 85 per cent alignment. Each benchmark was then analysed separately and, although there was some variation between programs, findings were positive.
Based on the project findings, seven recommendations were made for university practice in relation to mentoring and equity groups, and for further research:
- Universities should examine the specific support required for students from disadvantaged groups during and nearing completion of their courses in specific institutions.
- Research should be conducted to compare the effectiveness of general versus targeted mentoring programs for students from underrepresented groups.
- Research should be conducted using in-depth case studies that explore the structure of mentoring programs using a range of participant and program data.
- University programs should ensure that mentee selection processes are clearly outlined in the program information.
- University equity-focused programs should ensure that, in addition to comprehensive mentor recruitment, training and support, mentees are provided with relevant preparation and support.
- Research should be conducted to examine how universities evaluate and report on their program outcomes through a range of in-depth case studies that could include document analysis.
- Examples of program details where benchmarks, particularly those relating to evaluation, are comprehensively addressed should be made available on websites of funding bodies or other central repositories.
Conclusions and considerations for policy
The project showed that mentoring is used extensively to attract and support students from equity groups and to assist them towards successful completion and future employment. Such programs are mostly inclusive in that students from equity groups are included in programs available for all students.
Programs that target students from specific equity groups align well with established guidelines for effective mentoring. Some areas could have been improved for individual programs and others, such as evaluation, more generally. Further research is needed to explore the reasons for program differences and to link the benchmark alignment with outcomes for the participating students from equity groups.
Exemplars of programs aligning with the benchmarks could be made available to universities and individual program staff. Given that the majority of programs were site-specific and appeared to be tailored for their individual community needs, it may be useful for designers and coordinators to see how universities with similar students and similar needs have organised their programs.