by KYLIE AUSTIN
The Australian higher education (HE) policy framework on Widening Participation (WP) is shifting. Particularly, new equity performance indicators should force a national collaborative conversation to (re)define future WP practice, while one of the immediate impacts of COVID-19 is said to be increasing levels of inequality.
WP is a highly contested term within the equity context. Over the last decade, WP has been labelled ‘weak’, ‘incoherent’, ‘problematic’, ‘contradictory’ and ‘unclear’. The debate results from competing discourses in WP, largely centring on issues of economic rationality and social inclusion. Economic rationality is framed as the need to deliver increased proportions of Australians with HE qualifications to assure Australian competitiveness in a globalised economy. Social inclusion rhetoric focuses on enhancing the social mobility of equity students by overcoming structural barriers to improved educational outcomes, particularly HE participation and attainment.
This lack of policy clarity means that it is left to institutions and individuals to interpret national policy goals via disparate WP initiatives. Consequently, WP is implemented in disconnected and diverse ways, influenced by the mission, values and competing priorities of universities operating in constrained budgetary circumstances. The implications of positioning universities as the WP “policy brokers” in this way have been posited as leading to: university qualifications being perceived as having higher value than vocational qualifications; WP activities being subsumed within institutional recruitment agendas; or institutions opting out of WP altogether.
The 2020 introduction of performance-based funding, with a new equity measure rewarding universities that increase equity group participation for Indigenous, low socio-economic status and regional/ remote students, underscores the freshly urgent need for a national conversation around how to achieve WP. Absent cross-sectoral consensus, we risk cementing a policy platform that is institutionally focused, rather than pursuing a holistic national approach that values the aspirations and capabilities of all students.
It is up to us. Equity leadership, collaboration and policy clarity are needed now more than ever.
President, Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia
Senior Manager (Outreach & Equity), University of Wollongong