Broadening access ‘not just an equity programme’

Equity ‘synonymous’ with excellence, creating the pre-conditions for multi-dimensional learning, conference hears

December 14, 2018
Entrance gateway at University of Cambridge
Source: Alamy

Extending access to university helps to cultivate the “marketplace of ideas” that gives learning its complexity, a Melbourne forum has heard.

La Trobe University equity expert Andrew Harvey said that, while universities have an obligation to contribute to access – and, ultimately, success – for disadvantaged groups, this has equally important spin-offs for the wider student body.

Diversity “directly informs teaching and learning”, he told the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency conference.

“This is about the quality of the classroom experience, and understanding that diversity of viewpoints is critical to informing education,” said Dr Harvey, director of La Trobe’s Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research.

Mary Kelly, equity director at Queensland University of Technology, said broad access was a pre-condition for excellence. “We’re in the knowledge business,” she said.

“Unlike other industries, retail or whatever, knowledge is co-created by the participants. It is best constructed where the participants themselves are diverse – in their backgrounds, in their cognitive approach, in the points of view they bring.

“If you only have one sort of student, you will not be able to construct your knowledge and teach your students about the very things they need – nimble frames of reference, being able to see a problem from different points of view. That relies on having in front of you, within your teaching and learning ecosystem, that very diversity you’re attempting to teach.”

Ms Kelly said that this point had been rammed home by QUT’s efforts to introduce Indigenous perspectives into its curriculum. “It had huge ripple effects across the academy, because to do that you first had to understand critical race theory – the history of colonisation; anti-racism; the epistemology of knowledge and how it’s constructed; how teachers and researchers can articulate and adapt their own points of view,” she said.

“It’s led to a huge amount of reflection, widespread cultural competence training and so on. It’s still a work in progress, but my point is that what could merely have been seen as an equity activity goes to the very heart of our core business of knowledge. It’s shaking it up and making it more sophisticated.”

But Ethan Taylor, a former president of the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students, highlighted a “paradox” in universities’ equity activities. He said that, having dropped out of school but then excelled in a vocational college pathway programme, he had been denied direct entry into a University of Melbourne arts degree.

Instead, he had been obliged to take an Indigenous bridging course – a six-month diversion that university staff later admitted had been unnecessary. “We want people from diverse backgrounds, yet we apply entry standards so narrowly,” he said.

“We implement equity in a black and white way. We don’t take into account the diverse experiences of the people that come to university.”

Mr Taylor said that a “tick-the-box” approach to access risks depriving universities of Indigenous insights. “You need our knowledge systems,” he told the conference.

“Sixty thousand years of economic policy, of social policy, of governance. You need our experiences. Unless you start to apply these standards more diversely, with more acceptance, you won’t get that knowledge.”

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