How to advance equity-informed leadership in universities

Increasing diversity at universities requires more than raising aspirations and enrolment among Indigenous and other under-represented students. Braden Hill offers seven ways leaders can address barriers to equity

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Braden Hill's avatar
Edith Cowan University
3 May 2023
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Power within the Australian university sector resides with vice-chancellors, governing councils and senior executives who are predominantly white, mostly male, non-disabled and primarily in their fifties and sixties. Therefore, strategy, decision-making and priority-setting responsibilities sit with a strikingly homogeneous group that may not have a strong professional or personal grasp of the significance of equity in addressing structural oppression and educational disadvantage. To think that this has been the case for more than 170 years is, at the very least, cause for reflection. However, perhaps most importantly, this long-established status quo sits in stark contrast to the diverse student cohorts we teach, supervise and support in the here and now.

From this homogeneity emerges a predominant understanding of equity that is a bit lacking. In my experience, not enough leaders can articulate a clear understanding of equity or its importance to educational success for minoritised students and staff. We often see this reflected in how we do equity. For example, as a sector, we principally focus our efforts on “raising aspirations” and increasing the numbers of historically excluded students but pay little attention to the structural barriers that impact their educational journeys to get there.

For instance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in academia are often asked by non-Indigenous leaders: “How can we attract more Indigenous students into university studies?” The uncomfortable answer is: “Address the racism they face in school and society more broadly, remedy the low expectations that educators tend to have towards Indigenous students and attend to the well-evidenced inequalities in the Australian schooling system.” Furthermore, we know that Indigenous children do not lack aspiration for a fulfilling life and career but endure an educational system that orients them away from pursuing university study.

Understanding structural inequality

Evidence of structural inequality emerges a long time before many come to know what a university is. For example, if we look at educational outcomes for Indigenous students in terms of reading, our national data shows that in the early years of primary school (Year 3) about 83 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were at, or above, the national minimum standard for reading. However, by Year 9 it is only 67.2 per cent. Then, if we fast forward to the end of secondary schooling, only 57 per cent of our Indigenous kids are successfully completing their final year of high school.

Such barriers also exist for other student cohorts. For instance, we know students with a disability in school often do not receive the support that they need. We also know that 60 per cent of LGBTQIA+ kids feel unsafe in their schools and one in four has attempted suicide. We know that students from regional and remote areas are 40 per cent less likely to gain a high-level tertiary qualification. These are all things we’ve known for a long time, but little has positively shifted the dial across the breadth of our educational system.

Unfortunately, much of this inequality remains unseen by those of us in power at universities. We look inward, concerned mostly with what is visible within the boundaries of our campuses. And, where equity work is being done to address such structural issues, it’s too often conceptualised as being at the periphery of our core business”, an optional extra. So, when “diverse” students enter our institutions, we concern ourselves with the additional investment required to support them instead of interrogating our assumptions about traditional” students and those who “diverge” from some collectively imagined student norm.

The value of equity-mindedness to university leadership

A full and proper understanding of and commitment to equity is critical to changing this. But we must acknowledge that equity requires action, action requires leadership and leadership requires courage. And while a considerable lack of diversity in our university leadership makes this more difficult, the concept of equity-mindedness might be helpful.

In academia, equity-minded leaders are particularly astute at respectfully, yet proactively, leveraging or relinquishing their power, privilege and authority to address systemic barriers that impact the professional and personal lives of minoritised and marginalised staff and students.

While we continue the necessary push for a significantly diversified leadership in academia, it is important leaders consider what they can do to advance equity-informed leadership in their institutions. Some key actions for consideration may be:

  • Commit to a personal journey towards critical consciousness of equity. Reflect on how the concept relates to you and who you are, commit to equity work in relationship with others and be OK with taking a back seat to listen and learn.
  • Understand where the priorities should be. Disaggregate your staff and student data to fully understand where equity work must be prioritised within the university. Partner with those communities with lived experience to shape appropriate strategies and responses.
  • Ensure equity is budgeted for. Embed and prioritise equity within the budgeting processes of the institution. Ensure dedicated line items are in place from the executive level down. It can only become everyone’s business if it’s resourced appropriately.  
  • Embed a shared equity leadership model. All leaders should be expected to do equity work. It’s also important to ensure, across the depth and breadth of the university, that this work is understood, valued and enabled in the same way that other forms of leadership (such as teaching and learning, research or internationalisation) are.
  • Foster strong relationships with the communities you seek to serve. Work in mutually beneficial ways with schools, community advocacy groups, regional organisations, educational partners and national advocacy bodies and associations.
  • Evaluate impact. Evaluate impact of your equity work and have an openness to being held accountable by those typically without power.
  • Diversify the “inner circle” that enables your work. Most leaders tend to use the same group of people as sounding boards for ideas or problem-solving. Broaden this group where possible and pay attention to who is not represented.

Braden Hill is is a Noongar (Wardandi) man from the south-west of Western Australia and deputy vice-chancellor (students, equity and Indigenous) at Edith Cowan University, Perth.

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