Top-down change to remove student equity blocks

Assisting disadvantaged students to succeed in existing university cultures is not an answer to exclusion. Changing their systems is. “Equity is everyone’s business”

“Rather than asking how students can acquire missing skills needed to leverage success within an institution,” the task should be for institutions to address what they can do, “to make themselves more or less inclusive and navigable for all students (and even, staff and the wider community)” , Ryan Naylor and Nathan Mifsud (La Trobe U) argue in a new report from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.

They suggest six “pressure points” in institutions where “structural inequalities” can be addressed.

* staff: “how staff interact with students, particularly through teaching, may have a substantial effect on the creation of structural barriers for some students. Internal inequalities may arise in classroom teaching through unconscious bias from teachers, or privileging particular styles of discourse in the curriculum. A simple, but potentially prevalent problem, is assumed knowledge.”

* students: “are also active co-creators in classroom cultures, and may therefore contribute to internal inequalities and exclusionary discourses”

* curriculum: “policies associated with curriculum design and administration, such as assessment policies, may also contribute to internal inequalities by increasing or reducing flexibility for non-traditional students, students with family responsibilities, or students with disabilities”

* administration: “alienating language; bureaucratism; inflexibility; poor coordination between services; or poor data collection, warehousing and analysis which fails to identify students in need of support or assumes that membership of a formal equity group necessitates support”

* campus life: while students are spending less time on campus, “developing a sense of belonging to a learning community remains important in retention

* physical environment: potential inequalities extend beyond “mobility issues” and include, commutes, campus feel and sense of community and availability of “fundamental services”, for example WiFi

Naylor and Mifsud also warn that while, “barriers that arise from the organisational and cultural makeup of an institution are most amenable to change led from within the sector,” it can require top-down direction.

Leadership may be able to drive change in these areas—should there be a desire to do so—without constraints from contextual factors such as type of institution, size, research intensiveness, or location. That is, institutions can enact structurally enabling changes to their cultures regardless of whether such an outlook is ‘part of their DNA’ or a relatively recent understanding. This is a positive finding for making higher education in Australia more accommodating of a diverse range of students.”


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