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You are reading: WP’s post pandemic playbook: The future can be as bright as we want it to be

Professor Maria Raciti

Director, Indigenous and Transcultural Research Centre, USC

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed higher education globally. Despite experiencing a paradigm shift of proportions unseen for decades, Australia’s widening participation (WP) community and its agenda remains resolute and committed to righting the wrongs of educational inequality. Again, we find ourselves on the cusp of change with borders reopening and easing restrictions across the country. We are at a most peculiar junction — a quiet pause to take in the magnitude of change across the sector, to assess how well our fast-adapted WP efforts fared and to ponder what the new post-pandemic WP landscape will look like.

As we close out the year, I first want to pay tribute to the change-weary WP practitioners. Your adaptability and stoicism have not gone unnoticed. Thank you for keeping the doors of opportunity open. You have made a difference in the lives of many.

The pandemic has taught us much. There have been losses, and there also have been gains. Much of the pre-pandemic WP script no longer works, but this loss, as I see it, provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to reauthor the WP playbook. We are no longer encumbered by the way things were, so let’s harness our agency, leverage our creativity and set about defining our own WP future rather than waiting for others to define it for us. What the WP playbook looks like post-pandemic is up to us. Our WP post-pandemic future can be as bright as we want it to be.

As a starting point, I’d like to propose two small but somewhat radical changes to the language of WP. While WP practitioners and scholars are committed to a strengths-based perspective, a few deficit words and terms inherited from policies of the past still linger. One of those words is ‘outreach’, which is commonly used to describe WP activities. The term ‘outreach’ is not well understood by those in the community we work with, and some may see it as laden with connotations of social hierarchy. Might I suggest that we replace ‘outreach activities’ with the more apt ‘enrichment activities’? ‘Enrichment activities’ better reflects the work of WP, which aims to elevate, endow and strengthen. Also, ‘equity groups’ is an inherited term from a bygone policy era that similarly conveys social hierarchy. It’s time to change this imposed collective noun by switching ‘equity groups’ with ‘priority groups’. After all, social justice is our priority.

As we find ourselves in this in-between time, somewhere between pandemic and post-pandemic, let’s take the opportunity to start a new WP playbook. Let’s start afresh with respectful language by delivering ‘enrichment activities’ that help light the path to higher education for our ‘priority groups’. What would you include in the WP playbook?

Professor Maria Raciti is Director of the Indigenous and Transcultural Research Centre at USC. Maria uses marketing tools and techniques for the greater good — being the active pursuit of equity, social justice and betterment. Her main research areas are social marketing, services marketing and higher education. Maria is an Adjunct Fellow with the NCSEHE, was a 2018 NCSEHE Research Fellow, and was part of a 2019 Departmental Taskforce with the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment. Maria is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK) and is co-leader of two research groups being the USC Indigenous Studies Research Theme and the USC Transcultural and Indigenous Pedagogies Research Group.

Maria Raciti deliver a keynote at the 2021 NCSEHE & EPHEA World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) Australasia event on 17 November 2021. View the recording.