EQUITY IS NO LONGER AN OPTION - IT'S an imperative

Erin Watson-Lynn is Chair of the Advisory Board, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education and Director, Asialink Diplomacy, the University of Melbourne.

23 February 2017

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Seismic shifts in our economy and our society are here.

Our globalised economy has seen technology disrupt jobs, industries and markets.   

Our workforce is also increasingly polarised; with high-paid, technology-based and knowledge-driven jobs at one end of the spectrum and low-paid, unskilled increasingly casualised jobs at the other.

In both cases, many of the jobs that are around today won’t be here in 20 years’ time. 


Children being born today will be employed in jobs that we can’t yet imagine. The drivers of this change are varied, from advanced robotics and autonomous transport to artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

These radical changes in technology are also being accompanied by rising geopolitical volatility, changes in how we work, climate change, natural resources, and new disruptive models such as crowdsourcing.

Knowledge and an equitable higher education system are central to the creation – and mastering – of all these changes.   

Technical skills will be vital for all successful societies, economies and individuals.   

Digital literacy, too, will be essential for the vast majority of people, of all ages and in all jobs and occupations.

In the past, however, equity has been simply “tacked on” to economic or education policy, sometimes with good intent, sometimes for the need “to tick a box”.   

We’ve seen positive results in equity in the form of gradually improving participation and success rates for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education.   

We shouldn’t understate the importance of the flagship Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) in achieving those equity gains. 

HEPPP, however, has had to endure successive budget cuts and policy uncertainty. Yet we know that long-term stability and investment is crucial to make real headway on equity. 

Equity needs to be squarely at the centre of economic and educational policy.

No advanced society can afford to have a ‘digital divide’ – a prosperous technology-literate elite and a struggling technology-illiterate lower class that service the rest of society. 

The cost of this model is too great – it doesn’t make economic or strategic sense.   

Inclusion and social mobility are the watchwords for success – and central to that is the notion of equity.
Equity is the ability for all individuals to have fair access to all of the things that make for economic and social opportunity.   

The starting point for equity in society is education because it’s transformative for individuals, families and communities.   

Equity allows us to widen and deepen Australia’s skills base.

This facilitates the development, dissemination and uptake of innovation right across society, which enhances productivity and development.

But to make equity happen, it needs to be accepted as a principle of development and embedded as part of our economic and educational philosophy.

We need a national narrative on equity in higher education, one that involves all stakeholders and one that is developed on the basis of cooperation and coordination.

We need a vision that facilitates social mobility, is inclusive and supportive, and where latent talent is nurtured.   

This requires ‘policy resonance’ instead of ‘policy dissonance’ – policies that support and reinforce rather than clash and conflict.

There are three aspects to this vision for a strategic, equitable and sustainable higher education system:
• A ‘top down’ approach (getting the strategic architecture right);
• A ‘bottom up’ approach (providing evidence-based research that drives best practice programs which deliver results); and
• A national ‘framework’ to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of equity strategies.
For the big picture strategic architecture, we can build on two major 2016 initiatives that have pointed the way.

The first is Universities Australia’s Keep It Clever policy statement, which recognised that Australia is at an economic and productivity crossroads and that our future in part depends on our universities forging a role in creating prosperity. 

The principles established for this – accessibility; affordability; quality; research capability; resourcing; accountability; autonomy; and policy stability – are all essential.

We can also build on the Facilitating An Innovative Future Through Equity Forum held in Canberra and organized by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education

Two of the many distinguished speakers and participants in the forum included Professor Barney Glover, Chair of Universities Australia, and Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Both spoke eloquently about equity being an integral component of a progressive education system. 

At that forum, ten “Conversations” were developed – ten sets of issues that we need to explore to develop further a national narrative on equity.

Numerous policy ideas were also generated from conversations at the forum. 

Building on those conversations and the principles articulated by Universities Australia, I see seven strategies that I would embed into higher education policy across government and all institutions.

1. The first strategy is a clear and widely-accepted understanding of the strategic role of education in creating an innovation economy. 

2. Clarity and a national consensus on an ‘ATAR Plus’ admissions system that goes beyond a fixation on ranking admissions, which enables us to capture students who are capable, inspired and aspirational. 

3. Consensus on equity support programs, including HEPPP, using evidence-based research, which results in simple, focused but flexible programs that are easy to understand and use for students and institutions.

4. Australia needs to move towards national consistency that clarifies entry requirements, scholarship opportunities and the performance of institutions, creating a more transparent higher education system.

5. Integration of the tax, social benefits and equity support systems so that equity scholarships are embedded within a wider comprehensive network.

6. Education needs to be seen as a life-long continuous and diversified learning process for all. 

7. We need to develop a framework that can measure and evaluate success. The framework needs to incorporate pre-higher education (nurturing and facilitating the best potential); current students in higher education (supporting their engagement); and beyond higher education (measuring student outcomes to see how the system and its institutions have performed). 

Developing consensus around these seven strategies and the strategic relationships between them will allow better diagnosis of the equity issues and challenges. 

This, in turn, will lead to a more strategic focus on the outputs and outcomes required from higher education; and inform stakeholders of the architecture and processes that are most effective.

The speed of technological and economic change demands that the education system is equally strategic and responsive.   

To be up to the challenge, it’s imperative that the education system has the vision, imagination and the courage to lead the way.