Reviews of Equity/ Widening Participation in Australia

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.

There is a body of work that traces the history, evolution and development of equity in Australian higher education policy. The work of Gale & Tranter (2011) was very useful in this regard, presenting a historic overview of Australian higher education through the lens of equity/ social justice as well as tracing how higher policy is shaped by (and shapes) social and economic drivers, policies and social justice intentions. Their exploration of the evolution of Australian higher education highlights how little is known about higher education prior to World War II, other than noting the establishment of state capital universities from 1850 (the University of Sydney) onwards. There has been a marked increase in the number of students entering higher education, growing from 15,600 students studying in seven universities in 1945 to 1,373, 230 students (domestic and international) in 2014 (Australian Government, 2016). There have been several policy drivers behind these increased numbers, which can broadly be categorised under neoliberal and social justice imperatives.

However, as discussed later, the growth in student numbers – and the project of widening participation – has been achieved through increases in both under-represented student groups and from the ‘traditional’ audience of higher education – the middle and upper classes. According to Gale & Tranter (2011), this has resulted in a situation whereby “equity in higher education has now become as much a matter of economic necessity as a matter of social justice” (p.32). The ties between education and the economy were first made explicit in the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s, which “injected neoliberal logic into every sector of the education system” (Connell, 2013b: 104). The two major advances in the Dawkins reforms - the creation of the unified system (resulting from the merging of universities and Colleges of Advanced Education) and the introduction of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) – foregrounded the individual benefits of higher education as a way of justifying the passing part of the financial responsibility for funding higher education to the student. As Gale & Tranter (2011) surmise, the “private gains of higher education became paramount in policy discourse, replacing the previous emphasis on the overall public good” (p.36). This opened space for neoliberal discourses and practices to spread throughout the sector, with the subsequent Howard government making further cuts to public spending (in the form of a reduced threshold and increased student contributions) on the basis that both industry and individuals profited (see Marginson, 2004 for detailed discussion). The market-gain arguments for diminishing public contribution to the project of higher education have continued through subsequent governments to the present day.

However, despite neoliberal discourses and the push of responsibility to the individual proliferating over nearly three decades, the focus on equity and widening participation has remained constant, albeit in part because of the economic imperative to widen participation to contribute to Australia’s future economic growth and productivity. The Dawkins reforms may have opened the door to the neoliberal forces that have continued to shape higher education for over two decades, but they also formally identified six social groups were/are under-represented in university study[1]. This identification named, and therefore inscribed in policy and funding, a need to focus attention of opening access (as opposed to increasing numbers) for groups who had been traditionally less likely to seek entrance to higher education. However, since their inscription in policy in 1990, these six equity groups have remained ‘the’ equity groups, albeit with a narrowed focus to three groups (low SES, Indigenous and rural and remote students), on the basis that women, NESB and people with disabilities had showed improved participation rates by 2002. Other ‘equity’ groups have also been suggested, for example men in non-traditional areas was a suggested group in the Nelson review of 2002; however, as Harvey, Andrewartha & McNamara (2015) note, “Remarkably, there has been little change to the groups in the 25 years since they were first canvassed” (p.185). This, it is argued, ill-reflects the changing needs and profile of an increasingly diverse and multicultural Australian society. Coates & Krause (2005) examined the options for identifying new equity groups based on a review of ten years of equity data and found that the existing ways of collecting data were prohibitive for identifying new groups. They found that summative and diagnostic roles of performance indicators (which produce a picture of performance of higher education) are often in conflict, as the need for generalisability at the national/systemic level does not always help institutions to be locally responsive and vice versa.

In their 2015 paper, Whitty & Clements (2015) examine efforts to widen access to higher education in the UK and Australia from the dual lenses of quantitative and qualitative inequality. Quantitative inequality examines inequity at the level of how participation and access are measured, with ‘Maximally Maintained Inequality’ leading to saturation from ‘traditional’ sources of students [see also, Pitman, 2015; Gidley et al. 2010). ‘Qualitative inequality’, on the other hand, can be explained by the theory of ‘Effectively Maintained Inequality’, whereby the more privileged look for new ways to enhance advantage (see also the argument made by Marginson, 2004, 2011 about wealthy Australians seeking to maintain their positional advantage by attending high ranking foreign universities). Gale & Parker (2013) take a similar view, arguing that despite equity being on the agenda for two decades, questions are still “emerging about its usefulness in pursuing social justice in HE into the future. The concerns are with both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of equity” (p.59)

An alternative approach to reviewing equity in higher education takes a different approach.

Lamb et al. (2015) examined the notion of Australia as a fair and egalitarian society through the opportunities available to different social groups at four milestones in contemporary education system. The milestones used as points of measurement are: early years (children who as ‘developmentally ready’ at start of school), middle years (Year 7 children), senior school years (completers of HSC/ Year 12), and early adulthood (24 year olds in education, training or work). Lamb et al. (2015) measured opportunities across five domains: physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive skills, and communication skills. The major findings include the figure that, on average, 78% of students ‘succeed at milestones’, meaning a quarter do not, with boys more likely than girls to miss milestones (by 1.82 times). In terms of opportunities by equity groups, Indigenous students are 2.07 times more likely to miss out on milestones and low SES students are 2.08 times more likely to miss out on milestones. The authors attribute these sizeable differences to school readiness in the first milestone, and call for better quality of early childcare for low SES areas so as to address the opportunity gaps for low SES and Indigenous communities. Lamb et al. (2015) describe current childcare provision as a ‘game of chance’ because it serves needs of parents rather than meeting the rights of the child to learn and be supported. Moreover, Lamb et al. argue that governments should fund public schooling accordingly to ameliorate intergenerational disadvantage and policies need to consider contextual/ environmental factors.


Coates, H. & Krause, K.L. (2005). Investigating Ten Years of Equity Policy in Australian Higher Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 27(1): 35-47.

Connell, R. (2013b). The neoliberal cascade and education: an essay on the market agenda and its consequences. Critical Studies in Education, 54(2): 99-112.

Gale, T. & Tranter, D. (2011). Social justice in Australian higher education policy: an historical and conceptual account of student participation, Critical Studies in Education, 52(1): 29-46.

Gale, T. & Parker, S. (2013). Widening participation in Australian higher education: Report to the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), England. Leicester, UK: CFE Research.

Harvey, A.; Andrewartha, A.; McNamara, P. (2015). A forgotten cohort? Including people from out-of-home care in Australian higher education policy, Australian Journal of Education, 59(2): 182-195.

Lamb, S.; Jackson, J.; Walstab, A.; & Huo, S. (2015). Educational opportunity in Australia 2015: Who succeeds and who misses out, Centre for International Research on Education Systems, Victoria University, for the Mitchell Institute, Melbourne: Mitchell Institute.

Marginson, S. (2004). National and Global Competition in Higher Education, The Australian Educational Researcher, 31(2): 1-28.

Marginson, S. (2011). Equity, status and freedom: A note on higher education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 41(1): 23-36.

Whitty, G. & Clements, N. (2015). Getting into Uni in England and Australia: who you know, what you know or knowing the ropes?, International Studies in Widening Participation, 2(2): 44-55.

[1] These students are: students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, Indigenous students, students with disabilities, students from rural and remote locations, non-English speaking background students and women in non-traditional areas

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.