Social Justice, Equity and Social Inclusion in Australian 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.

There are three dominant conceptual framings in the literature included in this review: equity, social justice, and social inclusion. These three conceptualisations are evident in all the different types of contributions included in this review: empirical work, theoretical discussions, literature reviews, research reports. The term ‘equity’ most often connotes with discussions of policy and access to higher education, while the term social inclusion connects strongly with teaching and learning. Social justice is more commonly used to refer to the ideological view of widening participation as a project of recognitive justice, which is one of three conceptualisations of justice put forward by Gale & Densmore (2000, cited in Gale & Tranter, 2011; Nelson, Creagh & Clarke, 2009). This three-part typology of social justice includes distributive social justice, which is concerned with proportional distribution (fairness by redistribution of goods equally); retributive social justice, which is concerned with fairness by competition for goods; and recognitive social justice, which uses democratic processes to achieve fairness (through positive recognition of differences between groups). In their 2011 paper, Gale & Tranter examine the different policy changes that constitute the historical equity landscape in Australia using these three lenses of social justice. They contend that each attempt at widening participation has been accompanied by distributive notions of social justice when the economy has been healthy, with periods of consolidation and retributive notions of social justice when there are economic concerns. Gale & Tranter note that there has been little effort made to engage in a more recognitive approach to social justice, despite the academic arguments to advance a recognitive agenda. Furthermore, Gale & Tranter make the argument that the project of widening participation as equity cannot succeed without the advancement of epistemological equity; they contend that opening access is futile if academic knowledges and discourses and practices prevent engagement and participation.

Despite the detailed conceptualisation put forward from sociologists like Gale & Tranter, Francis & Mills (2012) note that much like ‘equity’ and ‘neoliberalism’, the term ‘social justice’ has “become somewhat overused of late by policy-makers”, resulting in its meaning becoming “both debated and diluted” (p.578-9). The work of Gidley et al. (2010) offers a useful starting point for unpacking these conceptual moves and alignments. In exploring the triple foci of access, quality and success, they assert that:

“…access, participation and success are ordered according to a spectrum of ideologies — neoliberalism, social justice and human potential, respectively — by way of a nested structure with human potential ideology offering the most embracing perspective” (p.124, author’s emphasis).

This conceptualisation has been usefully applied by other scholars to unpack the diversity of the discursive and ideological positions at play at both the institutional policy level (Kilpatrick & Johns, 2014) and the practice level (Cocks & Stokes, 2013). The conceptualisation of a spectrum assists with analysis of the jostling ideologies and degrees of social inclusion taken up/ made possible by different agents in the project of widening participation. Gidley et al. (2010) warn that social inclusion is vulnerable to the tensions and trade-offs that occur as a result of oscillations between neoliberal and social justice forces, arguing that as a result the focus for equity work is too narrowly focused on one broad and homogenously imagined group (low SES students), and thus social inclusion policy pays insufficient attention to certain groups, such as CALD students (including refugees), rural/remote, ageing populations and incarcerated people. This narrow focus is further impeded by the direction of policy/ discourse; Gidley et al. (2010) caution that If policies and interventions remain at the level of a top-down imposition of assumed common values, then it is likely that many of the marginalised groups, even if given access to higher education, may choose not to participate wholeheartedly” (p.130). Gidley et al. (2010) contend that human potential thinking goes beyond neoliberal/ economic and social justice notions to shape the idea that equal rights should “maximise the potential of each human being [through] cultural transformation” (p.135), thus valuing strengths and resisting the seduction of the deficit model.

However, in their analysis of publicly available strategic plans using the model proposed by Gidley et al. (2010), Kilpatrick & Johns (2014) found that very few of the documents analysed instantiated a human potential ideology. Instead, they found that broadly, the older and more research-intensive universities took a more neoliberal view of social inclusion (narrowly aligning with federal policy imperatives to increase access), compared with regional, newer universities, which tended to take a more social justice approach. Kilpatrick & Johns (2014) found that only “a small number of universities have embraced a holistic approach to social inclusion, articulating an integrated suite of strategies spanning the access, participation and empowerment domains” (p.40).  

The project of social justice and social inclusion needs to be understood as a whole-of-institution concern; as Slee (2001) points out in the context of equity and teacher education, for inclusive education to be congruent with hope for social justice, institutions need to confront the political nature of teacher education, and work against tokenistic efforts that limit social inclusion to particular foci (for example, special education). Similar arguments have been made about the work of widening participation being restricted to particular spaces and people, such as those working in widening participation units (for example, Burke, 2012). Such institutional approaches - that acknowledge the policy imperatives and talk around equity, but who do not make it ‘everyone’s business’ (Reed, King & Whiteford, 2015) – can be explained by the competing and contradictory imperatives of the neoliberal agenda, driven by efficiency, individual responsibility and competition. As Connell (2012) argues, to engage in the project of social justice requires us to enact and recognise our collective responsibilities, but these are eroded by the logics of competition; as she eloquently argues, “The neoliberal turn in education is ethically damaging precisely because it undermines this web of responsibility” (p.682). Moreover, Lingard, Sellar & Savage (2014) argue …social justice and equity are being transformed through the national and global reworking of education into a field of measurement and comparison” (p.711). The opening of education to the market, and the push from collective to individual responsibility has significantly shifted the imaginaries and possibilities of the project of widening participation conceived as working towards proportional representation of particular under-represented groups in Australian higher education.


Cocks, T. & Stokes, J. (2013). Policy into practice: a case study of widening participation in Australian higher education, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(1): 22-38.

Connell, R. (2012). Just education, Journal of Educational Policy, 27(5): 681-683.

Francis, B. & Mills, M. (2012). What would a socially just education system look like?, Journal of Education Policy, 27(5): 577-585.

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.

Gidley, J,; Hampson, G.; Wheeler, L.; Bereded-Samuel, E. (2010). From Access to Success: An Intergrated Approach to Quality Higher Education Informed by Social Inclusion Theory and Practice. Higher Education Policy, 23: 123-147.

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.

Lingard, B., Sellar, S., & Savage, G. (2014). Re-articulating social justice as equity in schooling policy: the effects of testing and data infrastructures. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(5): 710-730.

Nelson, K.; Creagh, T., & Clarke, J. (2009). Social justice and equity in the higher education context. Literature analysis and synthesis: Development of a set of social justice principles. OLT: Sydney.

Reed, R.; King, A.; & Whiteford, G. (2015). Re-conceptualising sustainable widening participation: evaluation, collaboration and evolution, Higher Education Research & Development, 34(2): 383-396.

Slee, R. (2001). Social justice and the changing directions in educational research: the case of inclusive education, International Journal of Inclusive Education,  5(2-3): 167-177.


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.

Social Justice, Equity and Social Inclusion in Australian Higher Education