Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Faculty

Faculty of Regional Professional Studies

First Advisor

Dr Jennifer Sharp

Second Advisor

Associate Professor Wendy Giles

Abstract

This study explored the experience of mature age female students with dependent children at one regional university campus in Western Australia, Edith Cowan University South West (ECUSW). These students are one of many student groups whose experience differs to that of more traditional students such as young, unmarried, and well-supported school-leaver students. Although all students enter university with experiences that make them valuable to the university institution, mature age female students with dependent children enter university with unique knowledge, experiences and attitudes making them potentially valuable contributors to their own and others’ learning (Martins & Anthony, 2007). Whilst at university, these students often face unique challenges in balancing their time and energy between their multiple roles (White, 2008).

The timing of this study was important in response to the Bradley Report (Bradley, 2008) which was released in 2008, which stemmed from a review of Higher Education in Australia. This report recommended national targets of at least 40% of 25 to 34 year olds are to have a bachelor level qualification or higher by 2020 (Bradley, 2008). The Bradley report also recommended an increase in enrolments of non-traditional students, including those with a low socio-economic status (SES) and those residing in regional areas. Research focusing on these students is essential as the actual experience of these non-traditional students, mature age female students with dependent children, and their specific needs is significantly under-researched. Thus, the purpose of this study was to add to the existing and emerging body of knowledge related to the population of interest to inform, guide and improve decisions relating to future Australian mature age female university students with dependent children.

The methodology guiding this study was Interpretive Description, a second-generation qualitative methodology whose ancestry lies in phenomenology, ethnography and grounded theory. The purpose of this methodology, which was developed by Thorne, Reimer-Kirkham and MacDonald-Emes (1997), is to guide the researcher in the exploration of the experiences of multiple participants in a particular social setting, such as attending university. The methodology facilitates the creation of a conceptual description capturing the themes and patterns conveyed by the participants (Thorne, 2008).

Data were collected from 32 participants who were involved in this study, with 21 participating in individual interviews and 11 participating in one of three mini-focus groups. Each of these 32 participants also completed the same 20-question demographic questionnaire. These methods supported the analysis of the participants’ experience, resulting in a multi-layered conceptual description. The foundational layer of the conceptual description illustrates two complex and interrelated themes of expectations and management. The expectations theme included three aspects; students’ academic expectations, expectations of the overall university experience and their expectations of time. The management theme included five aspects; students’ management of time, family, well-being, money and other significant external factors. The interpretive analysis of these themes identified three protective coping concepts and one central concept forming the conceptual layers. The three protective coping concepts included having access to, and receiving appropriate support from others; sacrifices which were required or made by the student and others; and students’ individual perception of their own university experience. Central to these protective coping concepts was the concept of “motherhood first” that was identified by the students as their primary social role, and that this role took precedence over other social roles, and influenced all aspects of their experience. This conceptual description synthesised the experience of mature age female students with dependent children who were studying at ECUSW, aligning with similar concepts highlighted for students with dependent children in existing literature (Estes, 2011; Marandet & Wainwright, 2010; White, 2008).

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