Students must fit in or be fixed, warns scholar

Roehampton professor urges universities to examine policies and practices that are making difference invisible

June 25, 2015
A person mimicking a statue
Source: Reuters
Learning to fit in: the academy is ‘complicit’ in perpetuating inequalities

Attempts to integrate students from less privileged backgrounds work to “silence and make difference invisible”, an academic claims.

Penny Jane Burke, professor of education at the University of Roehampton, will tell a colloquium on 26 June that institutions’ outreach activities portray problems of participation as being “outside universities” and ignore how the academy is “often deeply complicit in perpetuating inequalities and exclusions” through “standardising and homogenising” processes.

Writing in the programme for the event, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Society for Research into Higher Education, Professor Burke says that the “limited” forms of support provided to students at university “tend to be remedial in nature”, designed to “fix” non-standard undergraduates and to turn them into “legitimate” learners.

Those seen as deserving of higher education “must conform to and master the normalising and disciplining practices of higher education pedagogies, participation and practices”, Professor Burke writes.

“Hegemonic policies and practices work to silence and make difference and inequality invisible…Difference tends to be reduced to the marketing images of happy university students from ‘other’ kinds of backgrounds,” she says.

Professor Burke said that students from under-represented backgrounds who dropped out were often regarded as lacking as in resilience or confidence. A more likely explanation, she said, was that their upbringing had not exposed them to the same practices and experiences enjoyed by families with a history of higher education participation.

Professor Burke said that curricula should include content that is relevant to students from a wider range of backgrounds. For example, she argued that it was important to take greater account of the experiences of Aboriginal students in Australia, where she is co-director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education at the University of Newcastle.

Students from under-represented backgrounds would feel more welcome at university, she said, if they had been engaged with and given access to lecturers before enrolling. This would make them feel that their contribution is valued, she argued.

Professor Burke uses her paper to argue that universities should embed research into their inclusion policies. A range of “fine-tuned research methodologies” are needed, she says, to “explore the fluidity of power and social relations, the complexity of intersecting differences and sociocultural contexts, [and] the ways that social practices and processes might be historically embedded and taken for granted”.

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Article originally published as: Students must ‘fit in or be fixed’ (25 June 2015)

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