Inclusion in Higher Education: What does it mean?
Op-ed by Anthony Gartner, Associate Director for Student Equity and AccessAbility Services, Swinburne University of Technology, and participant in the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK, from 24–27 November 2019
It is largely taken for granted in many countries that higher education should be open to all. In Australia, much effort has been put into increasing access to higher education for people from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds through the introduction of the Federally funded Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP) in 2010. As detailed in the HEPPP Evaluation Report (2017 p. xiii):
The HEPPP was established in 2010 and funds universities to ‘undertake activities and implement strategies that improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low SES backgrounds and improve their retention and completion rates.
Initially the focus of this legislated program was to increase the participation rates of low SES students, defined as the bottom quarter of socio-economic status, to 20% of enrolments: approaching, but not quite proportional representation. Whilst it was mooted several years ago to open the HEPPP criteria up to a range of different equity groups, the focus has remained on low SES and low SES plus any co-existing equity category membership, such as low SES and from a rural or regional background, low SES and Indigenous, low SES and first in family. A further focus has been to increase the success, retention and completion rates of these students. But is this enough?
What happens when those traditionally excluded from higher education arrive? Do they feel welcome? Do they fit in? Are they as likely to be successful? The Australian evidence thus far is that they won’t do as well as their higher SES counterparts: whilst participation rates of low SES students is increasing, they have ‘lower retention, success and completion rates than other students’ (Acil Allen 2017 p. xvi). Whilst we know that socio-economic status does not affect capability, it does affect opportunity. As Jamil Salmi, ex Head Tertiary Education, World Bank, stated at the recent World Access to Higher Education Conference (2019), ‘Talent is universal: opportunity is not’. So if we provide opportunity, and talent is there, but outcomes are not matching because of SES status, then what?
I think it’s time we now looked at inclusion as a concept within higher education. What is the relationship between feelings of inclusion and success in higher education? What encourages inclusion, what reduces the ‘impostor syndrome’? Whilst I sit here at Heathrow Airport with areas of Central London in lockdown following a terrorist attack this afternoon I can’t help but draw, perhaps senseless, comparisons with other dynamics manifesting in society that in some ways may also involve the absence of feelings of inclusion (without wanting to oversimplify the deep complexities of terrorism). For it is one thing to open our doors to low SES students, another to support them when they are here, but we also need to assist the development of a sense of inclusion and equal worth and value, and the attainment of commensurate employment outcomes. Only then will we have truly holistic inclusion in higher education.
Further investigation is required to understand what creates and fosters inclusion. I have found a clue in responses to a survey conducted of students who received an equity grant or scholarship from Swinburne University of Technology, where the common theme reported by students was that they felt like ‘someone knew they were there’. These students show a moderate increase in success, but a significant increase in retention when compared to their cohort of low SES students and indeed the average student cohort. It’s significant, but only one simple way to increase inclusion and thereby retention. What other opportunities are we missing?
Acil Allen Consulting (2017) Evaluation of the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, Melbourne.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely by the author(s) and do not represent that of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).