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15 May 2023

Learning more about students from LSES backgrounds

A recent paper ‘Successful university students from low socio-economic backgrounds’ perspectives on their academic success: a capital-based approach’ by Dr Luke Macaulay, Dr Wendy Webber and Associate Professor Bardo Fraunholz, explores perspectives of academically successful students from low socio-economic status (LSES) backgrounds in an Australian university regarding their success.

We recently spoke with Dr Macaulay about the paper and what teaching and learning staff can do to better the experience students from LSES backgrounds.

Tell us about yourself and your role at Deakin?

I’m a Research Fellow in Deakin University’s Centre for Refugee Employment, Advocacy, Training, and Education (CREATE). As an interdisciplinary researcher, most of my research focusses on social justice related issues for people from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds. I am particularly interested in identity construction and political belonging. In addition to this work, I am also actively engaged in education-based research more broadly – especially regarding how authentic inclusion in education spaces can promote social justice and democracy.

Can you tell me about the others that worked on the paper?

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with Wendy Webber and Bardo Fraunholz on this paper. Wendy is a Lecturer in the Department of Management in the Deakin Business School and is a true champion of student experience. Bardo is a Senior Manager (International Relations and Transnational Education) in the Deakin International Team. At the time we conducted this study, Bardo was Director of Postgraduate Programs in the Department of Information Systems and Business Analytics in the Deakin Business School. Both Wendy and Bardo have extensive teaching experience and brought a wealth of expertise to the paper.

Why is it important to explore the perspectives of successful university students from low socio-economic backgrounds ?

Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a significant push to diversify university student cohorts, especially concerning students from LSES backgrounds. It has been shown that while students from LSES backgrounds experience barriers to accessing higher education, when undertaking their higher education through to completion, these students’ academic outcomes are comparable to students from higher SES backgrounds. Yet, it has also been shown that these students can experience unique challenges throughout their education which can lead to high attrition rates. These high attrition rates are of concern, as the completion of their studies can have a significant impact on LSES background students’ future social and economic prosperity. As such, it is important for educators and administrators within universities to be aware of these issues and to ensure that needs-based approaches to education are available – and importantly, accessible.

What was the methodology of the study?

Crucial to the methodology of the study was to centre the subjective experiences and perspectives of the participants, who were all ‘successful’ students from LSES backgrounds. It was our aim to better understand what types of resources (i.e., capital) these students utilised and viewed as being important to their success.

A capital-based approach was a useful framework to achieve this aim, as it provided us with a strong theoretical foundation for the study. The types of capital we were interested in better understanding students’ views on were cultural capital (university ‘know-how’), economic capital (monetary resources), identity capital (a strong sense of ‘self’), human capital (technical skillsets), psychological capital (resilience, self-efficacy, and adaptability), and social capital (networks). Better understanding these students’ perspectives and utilisation of different types of capital – related to their success – can aid in the design of appropriate needs based support.

How can educators and others in the higher education community apply this paper to their practice?

A key finding of this study was that students had clear conceptualisations of the resources they employed to be successful, yet any mention of institutional resources used to support their success was nil to scarce. This may indicate that although university supports are available for students to assist them in their studies, students’ knowledge of these – or the value they placed in these – was low. Therefore, it is important for educators and others in the education community to ensure that students are fully aware of available supports, as well as ensuring that these supports are valued by those they are intended for.

Another key finding of this paper was participants’ high levels of identity capital as students from LSES backgrounds, and subsequently what unique strengths they possessed which could be applied to their studies. As such, and as we urge the higher education community to do in this paper, instead of focusing on the areas that these students are at a deficit, educators and administrators should ask themselves what strengths do these students bring to their education to facilitate their success?

I welcome anybody to reach out if they have any further questions or would like to discuss the paper in more detail.


Macaulay, L., Webber, W. and Fraunholz, B. (2023). Successful university students from low socio-economic backgrounds’ perspectives on their academic success: a capital-based approach. Higher Education Research & Development, pp.1–14. doi:

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