What Makes Pathways a Social Justice Issue? A Conversation with Leesa Wheelahan

October 2, 2017   |   Foundations for Pathways

By Laura Servage

Most of the public-facing work on educational pathways is student-focused. The success of students, after all, is the “bottom line;” few would argue otherwise. As a result, we think of “pathways” in terms of helping students to transfer between programs and institutions, or to pursue higher levels of qualifications – perhaps by “laddering” a two year diploma in to a degree. Post-secondary institutions (PSEs) market to students on this basis, and there are increasing efforts all around to make pathways clear and transparent for students. These efforts include educating students about what further education they will be able to pursue with their credentials, and what kinds of jobs they can expect to garner in the labour market.

Such information, critical to creating a more equitable post-secondary system, is often hard won. It requires complex coordination and negotiation among what PEW refers to as “social partners,” or the many stakeholders who must be consulted and brought on board to create and maintain successful pathways.

Dr. Leesa Wheelahan got her first taste of this complexity in 1994. After several years of teaching in a community development diploma program at one of Australia’s Technical and Further Education Institutes or “TAFEs,” Leesa took a position with the Victoria University provost. A key task in this new position was developing a framework that would improve transitions for students from the TAFE division to the higher education division. Although the divisions were technically part of the same “dual-sector” university, they were characterized by deep cultural and governance divides, as well as different funding models.

The TAFE Community Development program in which Leesa had taught was well connected to the larger community, the labour market, and to degree options for students who wished to transfer to them. She quickly learned, however, that this setting was “an exception to the rule.” Instead, most of the pathways she began to study were fraught with barriers. Pathways were further wildly disparate in the extent to which they “worked” to provide students with future learning opportunities and relevant employment.

The experience marked a turning point in Leesa’s pursuits, and a strong commitment to improving cross-sector collaboration in post-secondary education. Although institutions, governments and employer organizations share a commitment to effective pathways, and school-to-work transitions, it is easy for stakeholders, in the throes of complex negotiations, to lose sight of the fact that their ability to partner has “real consequences for people.”

Throughout her graduate work, Leesa continued to examine the structural conditions and institutional relationships that shaped pathways. This required examining not only post-secondary sectors, but the occupational sectors with which programs of study are more or less aligned. In Australia, Leesa and her colleagues observed that nursing, as one of the strongest and clearest pathways, could yield some lessons in overcoming the kind of sectoral fragmentation that can lead to dead-end credentials and poor labour market outcomes for students. Nursing also served as a benchmark for evaluating alignments between earned credentials and labour market outcomes in other occupational sectors.

For Leesa, the key insight to be drawn is that it is not sufficient to study pathways in the post-secondary system in isolation of examining their ultimate outcomes for students in the labour market. Her research has thus evolved, over the past decade, to incorporate a stronger focus on labour markets. Pathways may look good on paper, but if they are not being pursued by students, there is a good chance that the credentials they link are ineffectual, or create barriers to social mobility through work and further studies.

Ontario’s post-secondary system has undergone significant change over the past two decades, particularly with respect to the roles of colleges. For Leesa, it is a dynamic environment for research, similar enough to Australia for her to transition her work to Canadian contexts. As new programs emerge and new alliances are sought, Leesa and the PEW research team will continue to take on projects that generate empirical evidence that will inform initiatives to improve pathways and labour market outcomes for students in Ontario, and across Canada.

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