UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998


Pacific Rim Conference on the First Year in Higher Education: "Strategies for Success in Transition Years"

Sue Franklin and Mary Peat
School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney

The third Pacific Rim Conference on the First Year in Higher Education was held in Auckland, New Zealand, in July, 1998. The theme was "Strategies for Success in Transition Years". Part of a Maori proverb "Ma te huruhuru te manu, ka rere mai" further added to this theme by referring to a cloak that gives support. There were 282 delegates attending the conference. Delegates came from all the Australian states, New Zealand, the South Pacific Islands, Hong Kong, Great Britain and Japan and both student support and academic disciplines were well represented.

The conference was the third in a series held, every two years, around the Pacific rim set up to discuss the problems facing students in their first year in higher education and look at ways to address these problems. These problems were clearly outlined by Craig McInnis, from The University of Melbourne, in his keynote address, who indicated that his study of 7000 Australian students showed that student retention and progression is one of the most pressing concerns for higher education. In their survey of the first year experience, which has become an Australian benchmark, McInnis, James and McNaught (1995) found that over one third of students surveyed had seriously considered deferring in the first semester. The causes for students leaving are many and diverse, including change of intentions, uncertainty of the future, other commitments, lack of adjustment, academic difficulty, academic boredom, financial difficulty, and isolation. These problems are becoming increasingly recognised worldwide and strategies are being put into place to enhance the first year experience for students. Craig McInnis noted that at this third conference there was a much larger group of teaching academics than at the previous conference, as illustrated by the strong group from Science at The University of Sydney. He said this indicated that the issues of transition are being taken up by the teachers and strategies for change are being implemented at grass roots levels.

One of the highlights of the conference was the strong Maori influence with a traditional welcome in the Auckland Institute of Technology's Maori long house complete with ceremonial nose rubbing greetings, singing and speeches. There was a strong Maori focus to one of the conference streams, which included papers on indigenous Australians in higher education, and on the struggle in South Africa for freedom and equality in education. Monte Ohia, from Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, one of the keynote speakers, discussed school and tertiary education for the Maori people and the development of bilingual education to improve retention and academic achievement. This was followed by a moving keynote from Professor Anne Salmond, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (EO), The University of Auckland, who as EEO officer considers equal educational opportunity to be just as important as more traditional EEO issues.

Many of the papers presented over the three days described strategies that had been put in place to smooth this transition phase of students to higher education and to enhance their academic achievements. For instance, John Dearne from the University of Canberra described alternatives to the perennial problem of giving lectures to very large first year classes. Traditional biology lectures were replaced with exercises carried out by students working cooperatively in class, based on their prior reading. The shift to giving students more responsibility for their own learning was favourably received by most students.

The Faculty of Science, at The University of Sydney, was well represented, presenting five papers, two on the transition to first year program run by the Faculty of Science and three on discipline based activities developed to help students with the transition into their first year at university. Research by Dalziel and Peat clearly showed that incoming science students who attended a "Transition Workshop" were significantly better adjusted on a range of measures, which included academic achievement, compared to equivalent peers not attending the workshop.

Another of the highlights of the conference was the Polynesian night dinner, in a huge renovated warehouse in the port area of Auckland, complete with coconut clad girls and muscly guys in small grass skirts dancing and fire-eating. Great fun was had by all - including dinner and dancing.


McInnis, C., James, R. and McNaught, C. (1995). First Year on Campus: Diversity in the initial experiences of Australian undergraduates. A Commissioned Project of the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching, September 1995. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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