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You are reading: Student Equity 2030: A long-term strategic vision for student equity in higher education

Nadine Zacharias and Matt Brett


It is a decade since the last major review of the role that equity plays in Australian higher education was undertaken, the Bradley Review of Higher Education, and over 30 years since the core framework for equity was first defined in the 1990 White Paper A Fair Chance for All. It is time to take stock and rethink the vision for student equity in the context of the contemporary Australian higher education system and economy.

There is much to celebrate in the contributions of equity policy, practice and research to the success of the Australian higher education system and its impact on social wellbeing and economic productivity. An accessible, high-quality higher education sector that is integrated with global innovation systems has been a contributing factor to over a quarter-century of uninterrupted economic growth. However, inequality remains a concern, and many groups remain significantly underrepresented in higher education.

The structural changes to our economy that are an anticipated result of digital disruption and the 4th industrial revolution, may necessitate new approaches to supporting the transition of young people to the labour market and a national strategy for reskilling workers displaced by automation and the digitisation of the economy. Australian responses to structural economic changes have always included increasing university access and participation by underrepresented communities. Consider the establishment of outer-suburban and regional universities in the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) in the 1980s and demand driven funding post-2010. How might we position student equity in higher education as an integral component of a comprehensive national response to these current challenges?

This discussion paper builds upon the work of the NCSEHE since its establishment at Curtin University in 2013, notably 47 NCSEHE-supported research projects and the appointment of six Equity Fellows, to promote strategic conversations at the intersection of equity research, practice and policy. The NCSEHE has conducted four recent Building Legacy and Capacity workshops with the aim of extending the Centre’s capacity in synthesising, codifying and disseminating learnings from equity research and practice to inform future initiatives, studies and policy and contribute to national discussions about productivity and wellbeing.

The most recent of these workshops brought together 28 researchers, practitioners, policymakers and policy influencers to advance a national conversation about the long-term strategic vision for student equity in Australian higher education. Workshop discussions were synthesised and disseminated to a wider audience in the form of a webinar. The enthusiasm with which both the workshop and webinar participants engaged with the conceptual challenge of assessing the relevance and positioning of student equity crystallised two core points. Firstly, there is interest from all stakeholder groups in articulating a compelling vision for student equity that:

  • recognises and builds on foundations of policy, research and practice set by leaders of the past
  • responds to the challenges evident in the system of today, which include persistent underrepresentation and inferior education outcomes for some groups in higher education
  • recalibrates aspects of equity policy, research and practice to respond to macro-trends that will shape the higher education system of the future.

Secondly, the breadth and complexity of issues that should be considered in developing a long-term vision for student equity cannot be resolved in a single workshop or webinar. The process by which various ideas, views and interests can be prioritised, organised, mediated and synthesised necessitates a broader deliberative conversation. The NCSEHE is supporting this conversation in line with its mission to close the loop between equity research, policy and practice.

This paper aims to outline the key concepts, challenges and contradictions associated with achieving student equity in higher education in an era of near universal participation, and point out possible options for resolving these challenges and contradictions. Eight big questions are articulated to prompt discussion and feedback from the sector. Written submissions are invited in response to these, and feedback is also welcome beyond the specific questions on broader or other issues of relevance. In addition to written feedback, a series of roundtables will be held in major capital cities and regional centres where these questions can be explored in a collaborative and constructive conversational form. Feedback from written submissions and face-to-face workshops will inform the development of a long-term vision statement, Student Equity 2030.

Read the full Discussion Paper here.

Accessible PDF.

The final report from the Student Equity 2030 project, The Best Chance for All: Student Equity 2030 — A long-term strategic vision for student equity in higher education, is available here.