Discourses and Marketing of Equity in Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

A key area of scholarship in the fields of higher education and equity/ social justice is a shared concern regarding the impacts of marketisation and neoliberalism on the potential, scope and effectiveness of equity policy and practices. Understanding the history and impact of shifts to competitive, market-based logics on higher education is crucial to the development and enactment of efforts to widen participation and redress endemic patterns of underrepresentation of particular groups. Fran Collyer (2015) describes the impact of marketization as “violat[ing], or threaten[ing] to violate highly valued academic norms and practices” in higher education (p.320), when concerns with economic returns and employability are prioritised over scholarship and teaching.

The influence of marketization on the competitive recruitment of students has caused universities to take up the project of equity/ widening participation in often-conflicting ways, reflecting the tension between national concerns about future economic competitiveness and social justice (for example, Bradley et al., 2008). These mixed messages can be observed across the world, with scholars noting how “deliberately fuzzy” messages (Graham, 2011) about widening participation in discourses and practices undermine the project of redressing historic patterns of underrepresentation of particular groups (Bowl & Hughes, 2013; Bowl, 2018; Chapman, Mangion & Buchanan, 2015). The ambiguity surrounding widening participation, resulting from the competing imperatives of recruitment and social justice, actively hinders the success of redressing historic inequity. As Stevenson, Clegg & Lefever (2010) contend:

…as long as the policy context and the philosophical rationale for [widening participation] remain unclear, [widening participation] practice is likely to remain the preserve of committed individuals, and, at the local level, will be largely incapable of having a sustained impact on broader institutional cultures and discourse. (p.105)

An analysis of the Australian context suggests a highly similar situation, with contradictory messages about equity creating confusion, and the conditions for institutions to engage with equity in ways that indicate an insubstantial commitment to the project. Chapman, Mangion and Buchanan’s (2015) analysis of the mission statements of three Australian universities, and interviews with staff in those universities suggests that despite the rhetoric in the official documents produced by the institutions, staff were largely suspicious of the commitment to equity. Moreover, Kilpatrick and Johns’ (2014) desktop audit of publicly available documents pertaining to social inclusion strategies in Australian public universities illustrates similar patterns. Their audit revealed that, in general, older and more research-intensive universities index a more market-driven, competitive positioning, compared with regional, newer universities, which communicate a more social justice/ human potential-driven view of social inclusion, with a significant absence of coordination or commonality in

what social inclusion looks like across the sector. Kilpatrick and Johns (2014) argue that each institution’s history tells a story about how social inclusion evolved in particular ways, leading to the current diversity in responses. However, the depth of these histories point to challenges in making changes.

Part of the problem with equity practice in the corporate university is that institutional marketing departments are highly adept at appropriating discourses of inclusivity and diversity, therefore creating a set of moral discourses that are difficult to contest. It is highly challenging to argue against social inclusion and diversity (Archer, 2007; Armstrong & Cairnduff, 2012). As noted by Archer (2007) in her focus on the discourse of diversity, “It is so apparently benign and ‘good’ that it silences other interpretations, thus “render[ing] those who resist it unintelligible or morally reprehensible” (p.648). These messages are compounded by the disconnections between policy and media environments within universities, with messages about inclusivity and equity “frequently contradicted and neutralized by counter messages that propagate entrenched positions about class, individual ability and suitability and the stratification of higher education by quality” (Snowden & Lewis, 2015, 587). Inclusion and equity therefore become linked to institutional competitiveness and global presence, evidencing what Chapman, Mangion, and Buchanan (2015) identify as “competing ideological discourses” (p.3) and indicating tension between social justice and neoliberal economic pursuits.

Fairclough (2003), also argues that the presence of a particular discourse does not necessarily indicate its enactment, or its full enactment, within institutional culture (Fairclough, 2003). Furthermore, as Webb, Dunwoodie and Wilkinson (2018) report, there is limited integration across the three institutional pillars of a university’s framework, namely a profound disconnect between the Federal government level policies and the rules, laws and governance arrangements of the university, and the experiences and beliefs of university staff. Nevertheless, the absence of explicit references to ‘practices’ and ‘connections’ within university policy documents and media releases also does not necessarily equate to a lack of these actions at the micro-level. Indeed, much of the work to support student inclusion goes unseen, occurring at the ‘coalface’ and involving individual staff acting as key brokers to guide students through admission processes and academic enculturation (Baker, Field, Burke, Hartley, & Fleay, 2018; Webb, Dunwoodie, and Wilkinson, 2019). This is a reminder of the warning offered by Stevenson, Clegg and Lefever (2010) about how these activities (or ‘workarounds’, to use Webb, Dunwoodie & Wilkinson’s term) will remain at the level of the committed individual, thus absolving responsibility from the institution from doing more to ensure equitable access to education for all students.

Another strand of discourse surrounding equity in higher education is the notion of  the student as consumer (Bunce, Baird & Jones, 2016; Mars, Slaughter, Rhoades, 2008; Tomlinson, 2017). Findings from Tomlinson’s study, (2017) which explored key themes in the literature regarding students as consumers, indicate  a range of attitudes or subject-positions on the student-consumer scale, including the ‘active service-user’, who strongly felt “that increased costs needed to be matched by highly transparent and effective modes of delivery from institutional providers who were receiving the costs that students were incurring” (p.7), the ‘positioned consumer’, who “expressed a mixed and ambivalent attitude toward the consumer ethos” (p. 6) and the ‘non-consumers’, who ‘challenged the notion of consuming higher education, and actively distanced themselves from this approach’  (p. 10). Tomlinson (2017) therefore argues that the notion of all students as consumers is challenged, although consumerist discourses do appear to be widely evident in student talk.

On the other hand, Mars et al. (2008) aimed to modify the existing academic capitalist framework (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2008) by ‘developing the instructional dimension of the academic capitalism knowledge/learning regime and examining the new roles institutions are supporting for students educationally as entrepreneurs’ (p. 638). Their case studies on the University of Iowa and the University of Texas El Paso, indicate  indicate the ‘emergence of a new student role – ‘state-sponsored entrepreneur’, which is consistent with & possible due to the ‘development of an academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime that collapses the boundaries between public & private sectors and that constructs an organizational infrastructure for developing & pursuing new circuits of knowledge creation’ (pp. 658 -659). The authors therefore argue that ‘the emergent role of the state-sponsored student entrepreneur introduces a new dimension to the academic capitalist knowledge/learning regime - the position of the student as active agent of academic capitalism’ (p. 664), which challenges Slaughter and Rhoades’ (2004) view that students are marginalized within the capitalist academy. Apart from that, Bunce et al.’s (2016) study explored the ‘student as consumer’ (SAC) notion by investigating the influence of traditional factors (learner identity and grade goal) on academic performance and potential predictors of consumer orientation (fee responsibility and subject studied), as well as the mediating role of consumer orientation on academic performance. Findings from their study suggest that while a lower learner identity was linked to a higher consumer orientation among students, grade goal, fee responsibility and subject studied was positively associated with a higher consumer orientation (Bunce et al., 2016). The findings also suggest that consumer orientation is a significant mediator of all relationships between the predictors  (learner identity and grade goal) & academic performance (Bunce et al., 2016). The authors therefore suggest that universities should initiate a dialogue about the SAC approach and its consequences with students (Bunce et al., 2016).

Summary written by Anna Xavier & Sally Baker



Archer, L. (2007). Diversity, equality and higher education: a critical reflection on the ab/uses of equity discourse within widening participation, Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5-6), 635–653.

Armstrong, D. & Cairnduff, A. (2012) Inclusion in higher education: issues in university-school partnership, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(9), 917–928.

Bowl, M. (2018). Differentiation, distinction and equality – or diversity? The language of the marketised university: an England, New Zealand comparison, Studies in Higher Education, 43(4), 671–688.

Bowl, M. & Hughes, J. (2016). Fair access and fee setting in English universities: what do institutional statements suggest about university strategies in a stratified quasi-market?, Studies in Higher Education, 41(2), 269–287.

Bradley, D., Noonan, P., Nugent, H., & Scales, B. (2008) Review of Higher Education. Canberra: Australian Government.

Brown, R. (2018). Higher education and inequality, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 22(2), 37-43. DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2017.1375442

Chapman, A., Mangion, A., & Buchanan, R. (2015). Institutional statements of commitment and widening participation policy in Australia, Policy Futures in Education, 13(8), 1–15.

Collyer, F. (2015). Practices of conformity and resistance in the marketisation of the academy: Bourdieu, professionalism and academic capitalism, Critical Studies in Education, 56(3), 315–331.

Graham, C. (2011). Balancing national versus local priorities: analysing ‘local’ responses to the national

widening participation agenda in six case study HEIs, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 13(3), 12–26.

Kilpatrick, S. & Johns, S. (2014). Institutional Responses to Social Inclusion in Australian Higher Education: Responsible Citizenship or Political Pragmatism?, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 16(2), 27–45.

Mars, M.M., Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2008). The state-sponsored student entrepreneur, The Journal of Higher Education, 79(6), 638 – 670.

Snowden, C. & Lewis, S. (2015). Mixed messages: public communication about higher education and non-traditional students in Australia, Higher Education, 70, 585–599.

Stevenson, J.; Clegg, S.; & Lefever, R. (2010). The discourse of widening participation and its critics: an institutional case study. London Review of Education, 8(2), 105–115.

Tomlinson, M. (2017). Student perceptions of themselves as ‘consumers’ of higher education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(4), 450–467.

Webb, S.; Dunwoodie, K. & Wilkinson, J. (2019) Unsettling equity frames in Australian universities to embrace people seeking asylum, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 38(1), 103-120.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.