Author Identifiers

Lesley Jane Andrew
ORCID: 0000-0003-0344-4611

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Medical and Health Sciences

First Advisor

Dr Leesa Costello

Second Advisor

Dr Ken Robinson

Third Advisor

Dr Julie Dare

Field of Research Code

1117, 1110, 1399


While student retention is a central goal across higher education, the projected shortage in the Australian health workforce has intensified its importance to undergraduate nursing.

Nursing degrees attract a higher proportion of mature-age women students than ever before. More are therefore beginning university at life stage characterised by marriage (or co-habitation) and traditional family structures. Nursing retention strategies require an understanding of the unique university experiences of these women, however, this is missing in the nursing literature. This study is the first to explore the experiences of these women students, doing so from the perspective of Bachelor of Science (Nursing) undergraduates in Western Australia.

The study was qualitative, guided by Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy and informed by feminist research principles. A public health approach considered the interdependent influences of structure and agency on the student experience, through the lens of social justice, equity and empowerment.

Twenty-nine women participated in in-depth interviews during the second and third year of their degree. This two phase approach, unusual in the nursing literature, created understanding of the student experience across the degree journey.

An analysis of the participants’ sociodemographic data revealed all were non-traditional students. The majority were first generation, a group known to face disadvantage at university. Interpreting their university experiences through the lens of student capital revealed a complex picture of influences on the student experience. Limited reserves of cultural and social capital in the form traditionally recognised as crucial to student success (Bourdieu, 1986) created significant barriers to commencement and progression. The differences in women’s expectations of the degree, compared to the reality they encountered, presented further challenges. Although the university offered extracurricular centralised support services,

the traditional ideas of gender within the intimate relationship reduced participants’ capacity to engage with them.

Participants described how their multiple responsibilities outside the university left them struggling to meet the demands of the degree. Their partners’ consistent unwillingness to offer help, combined with the rigid organisation of the curriculum, led many to compromise their achievement expectations to remain at university.

Partners with no experience of university were described as emotionally unsupportive and resentful of the degree’s time demands. Tension within these relationships was often high; eight women experienced separation. The university’s inflexible response during these intensely difficult periods presented a further challenge.

The women’s capacity to continue can be partly attributed to dimensions of student capital previously unrecognised in the nursing literature. Importantly, the availability of these dimensions fluctuated throughout the degree.

The ongoing issues of inequity described in this study suggest that social justice, a central goal of higher education, was not fully available to these participants. To counter this, the university must have an understanding of a woman’s lived reality outside the university, and its influence on her experiences within. An understanding of gender as a determinant of educational opportunity is particularly important. The multiple situations of dissonance women may encounter at university and at home, also requires consideration. A strengths-based approach is also important, which recognises and nurtures the diverse student attributes that support nurse student progression.

Nurse education may achieve this change through the conscious adoption of a social justice approach. A personalised and responsive model is proposed to translate this into practice in the university and healthcare settings.


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