Military veterans are largely invisible within Australian higher education. There remains little national evidence to confirm how many veterans are accessing and succeeding in higher education, who they are, and what universities could do to improve their access, success, and outcomes. This evidence gap is particularly problematic since international research suggests that veterans are likely to bring unique strengths to the classroom, but also to face specific challenges and barriers in accessing university. Moreover, postsecondary outcomes for Australian military veterans are relatively poor, with high unemployment rates and mental health risks. Higher education provides an important pathway for veterans to transition successfully to civilian life, and to harness the skills gained through serving the Australian Defence Force.
In this research project we sought the voices of younger military veterans who had enrolled in Australian higher education after completing full separation from the Australian Defence Force. We asked them to outline their university aspirations and any perceived barriers to university access, the strengths they brought to their studies, their experiences on campus, and the ways in which universities might improve processes to enrol and graduate student veterans. We developed a national survey, informed by members of the Australian Student Veterans Association (ASVA), which was complemented by broader evidence and international research. Findings reveal challenges and opportunities for both the higher education and defence sectors.
For many military veterans, accessing university can be difficult and even demoralising. Few institutions explicitly recognise military service during the admissions process, many universities do not recognise qualifications gained during military service, and most state-based tertiary admissions centres do not account for military service in their application processes. A notable exception is Queensland, where the tertiary admissions centre provides a framework for equating service to an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), which is accepted by all Queensland universities. We outline how universities and admissions centres could better recognise the experience of veterans in both admissions and credit policies.
Once enrolled, the student veterans we surveyed drew on specific strengths to succeed, including discipline, leadership, and time management. Most respondents were highly motivated and positive about their potential to explore successful career paths following their studies. Nevertheless, many student veterans did not feel a sense of belonging on campus. Some respondents felt isolated, many felt that university culture was not respectful or appreciative of military service, and only one third of respondents disclosed their military status to their institution. Universities will need to develop more inclusive campus climates, in which the strengths of veterans can be both acknowledged and harnessed. Creating peer community groups would also be helpful, such as chapters of the ASVA.
Finally, our study highlighted the central role of student support services. A relatively high number of student veterans reported a disability, and many also noted financial difficulties. Identifying veterans at application or enrolment would enable better understanding and targeting of resources, the provision of which is often critical to student success.
Further research is required to explore graduate success rates and outcomes of veterans, to interrogate identified issues within campus climate and university pedagogy, and to provide better quantitative evidence on the geo-demographic and course profiles of student veterans. Despite their importance to national security and prosperity, military veterans remain clearly marginalised within Australian higher education. New strategies and investment are required to recognise and reward service, and to support student diversity within the university.