The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Transforming Lives at the Institutional Level: Equity Promotion Initiatives Across the World

Edited by Jamil Salmi and containing chapters by Nasima Badsha, Kata Orosz, Nidhi S. Sabharwal, Renato H. L. Pedrosa, Gerry Postiglione, Jamil Salmi, Andrée Sursock, N. V. Varghese, Nadine Zacharias


Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

-Nelson Mandela

In a world characterized by acute wealth inequalities, growing threats against democracy, continuous political violence, and alarming global warming, Nelson Mandela’s famous statement about the transforming role of education has never been more pertinent. Strong education systems do not only prepare qualified professionals to serve the local economy and their communities, but they can help lift deprived population groups out of poverty, and they are expected to nurture cultural, scientific, environmental, and health literacy. They are also meant to educate tomorrow’s leaders to become role models for a fairer and more cohesive society, and they offer pathways for social mobility.

In my case, education allowed me to escape from the poor rural village where I was born in Limpopo Province, South Africa, during apartheid. In high school, I was one of only two girls in my class. I graduated as a medical doctor in 1972 and, in 1996, I was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, becoming the first black woman to hold this position at a South African university. But the accomplishments of one individual cannot occult the devastating impact of the walls of discrimination that denied education opportunities to millions of South African children under the racist regime that ended in 1994.

Against this background, I see the publication of Transforming Lives at the Institutional Level: Equity Promotion Initiatives Across the World as an important contribution to the body of policy work on the role and contribution of universities and other types of higher education institutions to the reduction of social disparities. This book represents a comprehensive exploration of innovative initiatives aimed at enhancing access and success in higher education for traditionally excluded and under-represented groups. With case studies spanning East Asia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Latin America, North America, Oceania, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Western Europe, it brings together a diverse collection of perspectives and experiences from various regions, offering invaluable insights into successful equity promotion interventions at the institutional level. By documenting both effective practices and enabling conditions in the specific context of each case study, this volume will serve as an essential resource for institutions, policymakers and practitioners striving to create inclusive learning environments and bridge the equity gap. Each chapter offers a detailed exploration of the impact, challenges, and potential for replication and scalability of these initiatives, reflecting the extensive research and expertise of the contributors to this book.

Besides showing the range of possible equity interventions in various geographical, political, and cultural contexts, and documenting several innovative approaches, the book identifies crucial patterns that hold relevant lessons for many countries. It reminds us of the need to implement both financial and non-monetary measures at the same time, recognizing that students from historically excluded backgrounds do not face only financial barriers, but are also held back by limited cultural capital, poor academic preparation, lack of information, and low motivation. In addition, the book emphasizes the importance of looking at disparities along a continuum that starts very early in life, with critical steps at each stage, including access to basic education, access
to secondary education, access to higher education, graduation from higher education studies, and integration into the labor market. This requires outreach interventions to motivate and prepare high school students, measures to ensure equal opportunities in admission, programs to ensure retention and success once students are admitted into a higher education institution, and career advice to facilitate the transition to the world of work.

One of the other merits of this book is that it contains several case studies that address important aspects of inequality linked to the historical, cultural, and epistemological foundations of modern higher education systems, which are essentially shaped by their colonial origin and the Eurocentric biases embedded in their programs. The Scottish example presents a worthwhile attempt to decolonize the curriculum in a systematic way, while the Mexican case study documents how a university designed in collaboration with indigenous groups offers a welcoming environment that promotes local languages and culture. The New Zealand case study is another instance of transformative efforts to better respect the distinctive culture of Māori students. The story of the Roma Civil Society Organisation illustrates the importance of creating a favorable learning environment where students from marginalised cultures who are usually rejected by mainstream society can feel welcome and empowered.

However, much more work is needed to analyze the structural biases inherent in modern universities, challenge their premises, and document successful experiences that seek to redress the cultural distortions playing against students from traditional cultures and rehabilitate indigenous knowledge, following the example of the few intercultural universities that have been established in several Latin American countries in the past decades. Other regions of the impoverished world need institutions designed according to the same principles, with the purpose of giving a sense of belonging to students from marginalized groups through epistemic dialogue, the promotion of local languages, and research on indigenous knowledge as a basis for the preparation of future professionals in domains that are directly relevant to local development needs. Offering equal opportunities for academic achievement should not require young people to become alienated from their culture of origin and aspire to foreign models of success. Progress in eliminating disparities in higher education cannot be sustained unless the primary and secondary experience of children instills in them a sense of pride in their cultural roots.

Finally, it is worth noting that the publication of this book, which documents innovative experiences that have positively transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of students from deprived backgrounds, is all the more important today as several countries have backtracked from their efforts to bridge the equity gap and adopted hostile positions against the global diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda enshrined in SDG-4. While the United States had been a pioneer in promoting greater equity over the past fifty years in several areas, including student aid, admission, and retention policies, it has paradoxically become the most antagonistic country in recent years, with a growing number of states introducing legislation that prohibits the pursuit of equity promotion policies and the teaching of critical race theory, even punishing institutions involved in such practices through severe budget cuts. The United States are not alone in this reversal. Among the former socialist republics of Eastern Europe,  Hungary and Poland have distinguished themselves as the most aggressive countries against anything perceived as “liberal” higher education. Even in Western democracies as diverse as Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom members of government or parliament have taken adverse positions against what has been disparagingly labelled as the “woke” agenda.

In this challenging context, I am convinced that this book will serve as a valuable resource for all those invested in promoting equity and inclusion in higher education. By sharing the successes, challenges, and lessons learned from innovative initiatives across the world, the book will undoubtedly inspire positive change and foster a more equitable higher education landscape.

Dr. Mamphela Ramphele
Co-President of the Club of Rome, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, former Managing Director of the World Bank.
Cape Town, July 2023

Full Text

Read the full text here: Transforming Lives at the Institutional Level book (3Mb)

Featured publications
A case study documenting the transition of one Indigenous student, Robbie, from an underprivileged school located in the Western suburbs of Sydney to an urban Australian university.
The Critical Interventions Framework Part 3 (CIF 3) focuses on evaluative studies which provide details of the impacts of specific interventions on equity groups in relation to access to and success in higher education.