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You are reading: A culture of inclusive higher education is everyone’s responsibility

An institution-wide approach, including staff and students, could reduce the structural barriers to higher education retention and success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a new report.

The research, led by Dr Ryan Naylor from La Trobe University and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), recommended institutions prioritise a culture of equal opportunities and experiences, rather than relying on students to adapt to existing structures.

Universities and non-university higher education providers (NUHEPs) were found to adopt three main approaches to ensuring all students could freely engage with their educations. These included structurally enabling (modifying institutional structures to meet the needs of disadvantaged students); capacity building (providing services or supports which help students adapt to existing structures); or blended approaches (a combination of both).

“Reducing structural barriers should be a particular focus. This may be more effective through distributed leadership, which holds that anyone may exert, or resist, change within an institution,” Dr Naylor said.

“Students should be considered as ‘distributed leaders’ in their own right, and be actively involved in identifying and addressing structural barriers within institutions. Staff also play an integral role, and should focus on facilitating sustainable change through social influence.”

Fourteen university and NUHEP case studies identified best practice in modifying institutional structures and cultures to support and retain students.

“With higher education funding likely to be increasingly linked to performance measurement, ensuring universally positive student outcomes is an increasing financial necessity as well as a matter of social justice,” Dr Naylor said.

“Inclusive practices within higher education institutions can be beneficial in the retention, success and positive experiences of all students, not just those from non-traditional backgrounds.”

The research informed a framework identifying six major aspects of institutional culture that may promote (or detract from) inclusivity: staff; students; curriculum; administration; campus life; and the physical environment. This framework is designed to assess university and NUHEP activity to determine the best model for supporting students at all levels.

NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad said this research illustrated the complexity of modifying institutional structures to support and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Building students’ personal capacity is important, but this should be built upon with the removal of structural barriers to successful engagement,” Professor Trinidad said.

“Academic leaders involved in the study recognised the institution-wide benefits of inclusive practices and this report provides direction for them to them do so.”

The full report, Structural inequality in higher education: Creating institutional cultures that enable all students is accessible here.