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You are reading: Structural inequality in higher education: Creating institutional cultures that enable all students

Ryan Naylor and Nathan Mifsud

La Trobe University

Executive Summary

In Australian higher education, there is—rightly—significant pressure on institutions to support and improve retention, success and completion rates for students without compromising the access and participation of students from equity group backgrounds, for whom these rates have previously been shown to be lower than for other students (Behrendt, Larkin, Griew, & Kelly, 2012; Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008; Harvey, Szalkowicz, & Luckman, 2017; Naylor, Baik, & James, 2013). With higher education funding through the Commonwealth Grants Scheme frozen in 2018 and 2019 to 2017 levels, and with the idea of performance funding floated from 2020 onwards (Birmingham, 2017a, 2017b), this pressure is only likely to increase in the future. Thus, ensuring positive outcomes for students, particularly those from equity backgrounds, is not only a matter of social justice for higher education providers to actively respond to — it is an increasing financial necessity.

The purpose of this project is to examine institutional culture in selected higher education institutions across the sector to identify best practice in modifying institutional structures to support and retain students. There is a focus on those from non-traditional backgrounds or members of formal equity categories, but minimising structural inequalities faced by these students benefits all students, and has the potential to benefit staff as well. The potential impact of this approach therefore extends beyond the student equity space. In this analysis, we have adopted structural inequality as our theoretical framework, placing the focus on institutions and what they do to block or facilitate a sense of belonging to, and ease of navigation within, the institution, rather than on the characteristics of students. The animating idea of this report is that barriers that arise from the organisational and cultural makeup of an institution are most amenable to change led from within the sector, and therein lies a valuable way forward.

Structural inequality is a framework examining conditions wherein groups of people experience unequal opportunities in terms of roles, rights, opportunities and decision making compared to others (Archer & Leathwood, 2003). Giddens (1984) defines structure as the rules and resources, often not consciously discussed but instantiated through actions and discourse, that actors draw on as they produce and reproduce social relations in their activities. It thus includes institutional and disciplinary cultures, as well as more formal organisational processes. Structures feed anticipations about what actors (in this case, students from equity backgrounds) want and can achieve in their relations. These interactions—the discourses in which actors engage—shape conceptions of power and institutional roles, which then affect the person’s further positioning acts, discourses and practices, and thereby become self-reinforcing (Rorty, 1979).

Structural inequality asks us to consider the way that institutional staff, other students, and even family members and friends distant from the university, make explicit and implicit positioning acts that determine whether an equity student has access to the same opportunities and experiences as those from other backgrounds. Structural barriers may range from exclusionary discourse in the classroom, to inflexible enrolment and assessment policies, to privileging particular communication styles. Structural inequality is the converse of traditional deficit and ‘cultural resources’ models of student support: rather than asking how students can acquire missing skills needed to leverage success within an institution, it asks what institutions can do to make themselves more or less inclusive and navigable for all students (and even, staff and the wider community). The responsibility for change is therefore shifted from students, or from areas associated with outreach and academic literacy programs (Devlin & McKay, 2014), to all actors within the institution.

Although retention and attrition have long been a subject of academic inquiry, particularly in terms of socio-demographic characteristics of individual students (Naylor & James, 2015), recent work has revealed significant variation even between universities with similar student cohorts, and demonstrated that focusing on institutional factors has far greater predictive power for attrition and retention than focusing on factors at the level of individual students (Higher Education Standards Panel, 2017; Institute for Social Science Research, 2017; K. J. Nelson et al., 2017; Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, 2017). These studies indicate a compelling, evidence-based rationale for focusing on institutions, rather than the background characteristics of students, to address student attrition and improve the student experience. To these findings, we add those reported as part of this project.

This project sought to examine the following research question:

  • How can institutions address systemic barriers that may contribute to student attrition, particularly in students from equity backgrounds? That is, how can structural and cultural causes of attrition be reduced through institutional change?

To do this, the following sub-questions were investigated:

  • What benefits might institutions achieve by using a structural inequality lens, in addition to the more common cultural capital lens?
  • Using best practice case studies, what implications are there for formal and informal leaders within institutions to reduce structural inequalities?

Read the full report: Structural inequality in higher education: Creating institutional cultures that enable all students.

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