Tuesday 16 May 2017

Access and equity in higher education: An international perspective (post by Carina van Rooyen0

Lisa Lucas
On 10 May 2017 Dr Lisa Lucas of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol (UK) engaged the SOTL@UJ group and some WITS guests on access and equity in higher education. Lisa brings a wealth of experience to this topic, amongst others her PhD in the Sociology of Education, previous work at University College London on projects related to widening participation in higher education, and three current international research projects related to this topic. Lisa drew on these research projects to highlight issues from those contexts related to access and equity in higher ed. 

One of these projects are the EU-funded ACCESS4ALL (A4A) project. Looking at various interventions for inclusion and success of under-represented students across six European higher education institutions, the project produced a very handy database to search for good practices within the participating institutions, as well as an institutional self-assessment tool. [A quick scan revealed that I will be returning to both these resources soon!] One of the content criteria used to evaluate any particular 'good practice' submitted for inclusion in the database, was social justice. A4A drew on Nelson and Creagh's (2013) listing of social justice principles of self-determination, rights, access, equity and participation. 
Kibbie, Carina, Beatrice and Vanessa

A word Lisa used in the context of this project was 'aspiration'. I am still wondering whilst writing this blog what this word means for our SOTL@UJ project, and whether we have thought, talked and acted enough on aspirations of students, lecturers, managers, parents / families and society. Lisa also mooted the challenge of very different terminologies, language and meanings when working on a cross-country project such as this. Our conversations over the last few years, even from within the same UJ context, have shown contestations about meanings. One such which I think we should explicitly grapple with more is how social justice and decoloniality relate.

A second project Lisa shared with us was the World Universities Network (WUN) research project on Challenges of equity and access: The higher education curriculum answers back. The second part of the title intrigued me! Compared to the first project's focus on interventions, this project was focused on institutional change. It explored access and equity through the curriculum in doctoral education and academic professional learning of the four participating WUN partners in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the UK. One unique aspect of this project is its focus on postgraduate access and equity issues, given that some much of work on access and equity in higher education is focused on undergraduate students. A lightbulb quote used by Lisa is from Gale (2014:15): the tendency in higher education is "to see equity in terms of just access, rather than to consider what is being accessed" (my emphasis). Whilst who enters higher education are crucial, this quote asks of us to seriously also look at our curriculum. This relates strongly to questions raised by the decoloniality movement and the place of various voices, knowledge systems and valuings in our curriculum. Epistemological access then is not just about what we do to open up for students 'our' knowledge systems, but how are we opening up to the knowledge systems that our students come with. It is epistemological access of student and lecturer!

Another phrased used by Lisa when talking about this project, and which resonated with me, is that of 'a living curriculum'. Quoting Keesing-Styles and colleagues (2014:498) it is to "reframe learning as a 'conversation' and develop programmes that are integrated with the world and genuine dynamic." A living curriculum will involve joint ownership of complex conversations that are curiosity- and practice-driven. And it will be "messy affective processes" (Harrison et al 2010:193). 

Whilst Lisa did not elaborate on the ESRC/Newton/NRF project on Southern African rurality in higher education in which she is involved, and what brought her out to South Africa this time, we will hear more about this project in future, given that a few SOTL@UJ'ers are part of this project. The project states its aim as contributing to "debates on widening participation, equity, social justice and post-colonial curricula in higher education across southern Africa". 

Lisa ended her presentation by raising some discussion points: 
- What are the challenges of access for underpresented groups?
- How do we develop inclusive university culture and inclusive curriculum?
- What are the role of educational and staff development, academics, managers, etc.?

The discussion that followed Lisa's presentation raised the potential value of formal courses at South African universities for PhD students to make the 'hidden curriculum' explicit. At least PhD students should be provided with spaces and resources to enhance informal learning. 

List of references

Gale T 2014 Reimagining student equity and aspiration in a global higher education field. In Zhang H, Chan PWK & Boyle C (eds) Equality in education: Fairness and inclusion. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers: 9-22

Harrison L, McKenna S & Searle R 2010 "I won't be squeezed into someone else's frame': Stories of supervisor selection. Acta Academica Supplementum 1: 175-200

Keesing-Styles L, Nash S & Ayres R 2014 Managing curriculum change and 'ontological uncertainty' in tertiary education. Higher Education Research & Development 33(3): 496-509

Nelson K & Creagh T 2013 A good practice guide: Safeguarding student learning engagement. Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology