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You are reading: Unlocking the gates to the peasants: are policies of ‘fairness’ or ‘inclusion’ more important for equity in higher education?

Written by Tim Pitman, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education

The idea of social equity has been a recurrent theme in public policies relating to Australian higher education for almost four decades (Rizvi & Lingard, 2011), yet appears to be marked more by failure than success (Corrigan & Ng-A-Fook, 2012; Gale, 2009). Public universities are typified as being either powerless to remove or complicit in maintaining barriers to wider participation. Powerlessness is usually explained as the result of external policy failure; whether poorly constructed (Sehoole, 2005) or non-existent (Watson, 2004). When viewed as being complicit in the process, the image of universities as ‘ivory towers’ is frequently invoked (Karabel, 2005; Watson & Watson, 2013). Most often, however, educational disadvantage is theorised as a function of both, where universities are both subject to and perpetuate social privilege (Bourdieu, 1996). Despite the growing power – and desire – of the state to re-form higher education as a lucrative service to be sold in the global marketplace, certain universities still possess sufficient financial and cultural resources to re-legitimise academic cultural capital, and so protect their position of dominance in the field (Naidoo, 2004). Even as mass higher education increases its overall reach, it is the lower-status universities that disproportionately provide access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Naidoo, 2004; Pitman & Vidovich, 2012).

With this in mind, and drawing upon Amartya Sen (2009), Simon Marginson (2011) suggests that there are two possibilities for equity in higher education. The first he labels ‘fairness’ and requires policy to enable proportional social representation in higher education. Here, policy and practice seek to lift the participation rates of under-represented groups towards levels broadly equivalent to their wider social share. Ideally this applies to all universities, elite or otherwise. This is the approach most often favoured by the state, whether it recognises distinctions of status within the sector or not. For example, when the Government of France in 2010 pressured its country’s grandes écoles to set a goal of increasing the percentage of scholarship students to 30%, awareness of status drove its actions. However, in Australia and the UK, current policies of widening participation make no such distinction and treat the sector as a homogenous entity. Marginson views policies of fairness, whether status is explicated or not, as less desirable for two reasons. First, the long and short lenses of history both suggest that attempts towards fairness inevitably fail. Second, by linking it to Sen’s notion of ‘freedom as control’, Marginson implies that the normative construction of higher education as a model of social composition is overly oppressive. Whilst some degree of freedom as control is necessary in order to redress inequity, he argues, it is better to focus on ‘agency freedom, and especially freedom as power, through learning, knowledge and credentialing’ (Marginson, 2011, p. 30).

This leads to the second possibility for equity in higher education, which Marginson believes is preferable. A focus on equity as ‘inclusion’, he contends, allows institutions to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to policy and empower persons formerly excluded to become ‘their own best advocates and drivers of participation’ (Marginson, 2011, p. 30). By allowing institutions to work around (rather than confront) issues of status in higher education, educational inequalities are more fruitfully mapped ‘in detail, rather than in aggregate’ (Marginson, 2011, p. 34). In a sense, Marginson argues that it would be better for universities to inculcate values of justice within and outside the Academy, than be prescriptively just themselves. More ‘build them and they will come’, than ‘build it’.

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Tim Pitman (2014): Unlocking the gates to the peasants: are policies of ‘fairness’ or ‘inclusion’ more important for equity in higher education?, Cambridge Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2014.970514.
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