Parallel Workshops – Session I
Diversity of the student body and social cohesion
Millicent Poole, Vice-Chancellor and President, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia
Introduction I recently attended a conference which coincided with celebrations to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the University of Turin. Coming from a newer institution in Western Australia, I was struck by the differences between the two universities. I was reminded how much the higher education sector has changed. Like the overwhelming majority of universities, for much of its history Turin would have been an elite institution, with an exclusive, largely homogenous group of students. My own University, Edith Cowan University, is a New Generation University with a history very different to that enjoyed by Turin.
Major shifts in government policy in Britain, Australia, Canada and Europe throughout the 1980s and 1990s saw a dramatic change in the higher education landscape. The so-called ‘massification’ of education led to an influx of new institutions (many previously colleges of education, polytechnics or technology institutes) and a correspondingly large increase in student numbers. It was into this environment that Edith Cowan University was born.
As one might expect, such changes in student numbers and increased participation rates has led to a change in the demographics of the student population – both within ‘New Generation’ Universities and across higher education generally.
But just how much diversity do we now find within the student body? Has the increase in participation been successful? Does diversity matter?
The role of Universities It is well recognised that universities have an essential role in the maintenance and development of social and economic wellbeing: “In the global environment, higher education and research have become central to the health and sustainability of the economy, to social well-being and to cultural life in every nation”.1 The building of the higher education sector in the 1980s and 1990s was driven by a belief that the university was a primary tool of modern nation building.2 UNESCO recognises the fundamental role that education plays in personal and social development.3 In its report ‘Learning: the Treasure Within’, UNESCO identifies education as one of the primary means for the “development of understanding and more harmonious interaction which facilitates the reduction of poverty, exclusion, ignorance, oppression and war.”4 The OECD has established a correlation between the level of educational attainment with economic development,5 but it goes further, and links participation in education with forming the basis for building the positive values that form the cornerstone of social capital (such as reciprocity, trust, acceptance and cooperation). Lofty claims, but in the current environment who could dismiss their importance?
The International Association of University Presidents has within its mission the objective of promoting the development of curriculum, research and service devoted to peace and stability. Wharton (2003) identified two characteristics of higher education that equip it for a role in developing understanding and tolerance. Firstly, research requires an open mind and the ability to consider conflicting points of view and secondly, universities treasure their attitude of tolerance by promoting academic debate and contention of issues.6 Higher education therefore has a role in promoting tolerance and mutual understanding. If we are to capitalise on this powerful responsibility, universities need to take a leadership role in providing opportunities for engaging citizens in debate and inspire tolerance and an appreciation of diversity.7 Through such engagement comes understanding and respect for others.
Current debates on whether education is a public or private good lose sight of the broader role of education.
In Australia, the private benefits of education are given prominence, with an ever increasing emphasis on ‘user pays’. Universities throughout the developed world are focused on similar issues with an emphasis on their role in economic development, commercialisation, competition and quality.
Whilst the full impact of this focus on user pays is yet to be felt, I fear one of the consequences will be the reduction in participation amongst those groups already under-represented in the sector. Whilst this will continue to promote disadvantage in those groups, more importantly it will impact on the social cohesion which higher education seeks to promote.
Diversity of the student body A diverse student body exposes all students to a broader range of individuals. Without this contact, what one learns about the ‘other’ is based on second-hand information, stereotypes, parental prejudices or media images.8 Diversity is important as it not only ensures that those that may otherwise be disadvantaged have the opportunity to participate, but equally important it ensures that those who are ‘advantaged’ will have the opportunity to work and study with people who come from very different backgrounds to their own. Thus opportunities for developing understanding and mutual respect can be created. Inclusion, not exclusivity is essential if universities are to achieve their potential as builders of social capacity and social cohesion.
The Kennedy Report (1997) notes that individuals who are disadvantaged educationally are also disadvantaged economically and socially.9 The Report recognises that for the economic and social goals of education to be truly realised “participation must be widened, not simply increased”. Access to lifelong learning is a critical part of this social capital building.10 Education and the upgrading of skills, if accessed by only a few, will lead to the polarisation of the knowledge and skills trajectory for the majority of our citizens.11 In economic terms, those excluded from the education system will simply fail to keep pace and will fall further behind. Universities have long known what governments need to rediscover: the value-added, transformational power of learning and knowledge creation, and its application for the benefit both of the individual and of society.12 Some countries are leading the world in using higher education as a social lever. South Africa’s approach to quality, for example, is anchored in a transformational agenda for the country based on social inclusiveness and capacity building. University education in South Africa is literally transforming the country into a more confident, equitable and progressive society.
Access and increased participation across all sectors of our community are essential. To fail to recognise this will disenfranchise and alienate whole groups within society, and hinder economic development.
Diversity among students takes many forms – socio-economic status, ethnic or cultural origin, geographical location, linguistic and experiential background, age and gender. In a country like Australia the participation of our indigenous groups is a particular concern.
Our notion of diversity need not be restricted to recognised equity groups. Poverty, poor health and family disintegration impact on individuals and their ability to engage in learning. Refugees and asylum seekers have specific needs that are often ignored or overlooked.13 To this list could be added part time students, remote students and the growing number of ‘earner-learners’ present within the system. The move towards ‘lifelong’ learning and greater ‘professionalisation’ also impacts upon the diversity of the student body as more second career students and mature learners join our student body.
As part of the process of expansion of access to higher education, groups of students who were traditionally excluded from higher education are entering university in greater numbers than ever before.14 Some non-traditional groups have increased in number so that they are in fact no longer a minority. Women for example now make up over 50% of enrolments in Australian universities. But there remains much to be done.
Schuetze and Slowey’s (2002) work on ten OECD countries shows that increased numbers have not resulted in wider access for all groups. There are still many sectors of our communities under-represented in higher education. These include older people without traditional entry qualifications, people from lower socio-economic groups, those living in remote or rural areas, those from ethnic minorities or immigrant groups. The authors conclude that high participation rates do not therefore automatically translate into equality of access. On the contrary. the massification of higher education has assuredly not led to the elimination of disadvantage and inequality.15 In the school education sector there are international comparisons which draw attention to differences between the quality of school performance across countries, and to the equitable distribution of performance across social groups within those countries. The OECD’s study Knowledge and Skills for Life (2001), for example, compares quality and equity in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy across 26 participating countries. Countries where the mean score in reading literacy was well above the mean for all countries included Finland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Among these highly literate countries, however, there were differences in the level of equity, expressed as the amount of variance within countries in reading literacy. Whereas Finland and Canada were both high equity (lower variance countries), Australia and New Zealand were low equity (higher variance) countries.16 It would be interesting to know whether such differences in quality and equality exist across social groups in higher education.
Schuetze and Slowey (2002) also confirm evidence from the research of the Australian New Generation Group of Universities which shows that diversity of the student body is greater in newer institutions, than in the older, more established universities. Schuetze and Slowey associate this with more flexible programs and modes of delivery that better meet the needs of non-traditional groups. In Australia the data shows that New Generation Universities have the most diverse student populations, with higher than average proportions of the following:
Part time students
Students aged 25 and over
People with disabilities
People from a non-English speaking background
Women in non-traditional areas
People from rural and isolated areas
People from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds17
It is a truism that socioeconomic circumstances are a precursor to education outcomes. Disadvantage begets further disadvantage for individuals, communities and regions. The role of New Generation Universities in providing opportunities for those who might not otherwise participate in higher education is therefore essential to social wellbeing and the development of social capital.18 To address this, greater participation and greater diversity of the student body is essential.
Before leaving the topic of diversity of the student body, I would like to mention the importance of the internationalisation of education. The last ten years in most ‘developed’ countries has seen an explosion in international student enrolments. These students are drawn from around the world – for example at my own university we have students from over 80 different countries.
The increasing number of international students has brought with it some real opportunities for our domestic students to be exposed to different cultures, traditions and ways of thinking. On the whole, this has been a success story. Over the last decade, international education has become one of the most dynamic global service industries.19 There are however warning signs that we should heed, and which inform the discussion on diversity. There have for example, been incidents of community backlash against the perceived ‘over representation’ of certain groups. Post September 11 has seen challenges to the notion that internationalisation is a benefit - in the US leading to a tightening of visa requirements.
The way forward If we accept that diversity and equity of access is important, and that there are still groups who remain under-represented in our universities, what steps might we consider to improve the diversity of the student body?
An OECD Report on diversity, inclusion and equity identifies four basic interpretations of equality which can be applied to education policy and practice:
Equity of access or equality of opportunity;
Equality in using the result of education or equality of application.20
Equity of access requires us to address the issue of whether all groups of individuals have the same chance of progressing through the education system. Equity of learning environment asks whether disadvantaged individuals benefit from a learning environment that is equivalent to that enjoyed by more advantaged students, in terms of the level of experience of their teachers and the quality and quantity of their resources.
Equity of achievement asks whether all students master, with the same degree of expertise, equivalent skills and knowledge, and leave with the same level of qualifications. Equality of using the results of the education system requires groups of individuals to have the same chances of using their acquired knowledge and skills in employment and the wider community.
A first step is to recognise and plan for diversity. At the centre of the challenge is creating equitable provision for diverse student populations. The goal should be inclusion, leading ultimately to improved social cohesion.21 Quoting Rawls22 the OECD argues that institutions need to be biased in favour of the disadvantaged.
At my University we offer a University Preparation Course as an alternative entry pathway. The University Preparation Course requires an extra six months of study and will prepare students for university level study by teaching the required skills for academic success with an emphasis on the student becoming an independent learner. The course is particularly valuable for non-traditional students who through a combination of factors have not followed a school-university pathway.
In addition, our Aspirations Program is run through a number of High Schools in Perth which do not offer Tertiary Entrance Examinations. The participating schools are those which have a strong enrolment of students from indigenous, low socio-economic, migrant or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. The very fact of their attendance at their local high school means that these students would not otherwise have an opportunity to apply to university. The Aspirations Program provides this chance.
In considering the participation of students from non-traditional religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds, Tatum (2004) suggests that diversity is necessary in order to move us beyond the cycle of prejudice and racism. In order to provide truly inclusive environments, Tatum states that institutions need to affirm identity (students need to see themselves reflected in the environment around them) build community (encourage a sense of belonging to a wider community) and cultivate leadership (leadership requires the ability to interact effectively with people from very different backgrounds).23 A more diverse student body has major implications for curriculum, teaching and learning and research.
One of the key challenges which the massification of higher education has brought is the need to meet the educational needs of an increasingly diverse group of students. Traditional modes of study and instruction in highly disciplined specific awards are not able to meet the growing demand of the student body for flexibility, method of delivery and nature of the educational experience.
The challenge for us is to design curricula and learning environments, in order to provide the flexibility and inclusivity which a diverse student body requires. For example, we must recognise that increasing numbers of students are working during their studies. A model which requires students to sit in a lecture theatre for an hour at 9 o’clock each Monday morning is not going to meet the needs of a large number of our students. Our experience has been to promote the use of the internet and a web-based course management system to ensure that students who are unable to attend classes have access to all necessary coursework materials and information.
Some of our faculties have established extensive peer mentoring systems whereby new-to-university students are paired with experienced university students. The mentors ensure that the newcomers are made aware of the resources available to them and assist them in settling into university life. For our new students, most of whom are the first in their family to attend university, the mentors offer a non-threatening and supportive introduction to higher education. Where mentor programs are in place we have recorded significant improvements in retention to the extent that one of our programs received national recognition in the Prime Minister’s Teaching Awards.
Incoming international students are similarly supported by staff and students. Student volunteers operate a “meet and greet” service at the airport, conduct the new arrivals to their accommodation, assist them in procuring telephone cards, opening bank accounts, exchanging currency and buying provisions. More experienced students in the senior years act as “buddies” to the new students and guide them through an academic orientation program and a parallel social induction into Australian life and culture.
One of our most successful programs in supporting equity and diversity has been the Kurongkurl Katitjin (which means ‘coming together to learn’ in Aboriginal dialect) regional project. This initiative is aimed at training indigenous primary school teachers in Geraldton, a regional town 500 kilometres from the University. The service model adopted is described as “Supported External Delivery” and involves: alternative pathways for entry, providing a safe place for learning, local co-ordination and administration, regular visits from academics from Edith Cowan University, intensive class contact, local indigenous support staff, and packages of external materials mirroring the city course. The program has resulted in an increase of over 400% in the number of Indigenous people accessing higher education in the region and an increase of 300% in the number of Indigenous teachers in primary schools in Geraldton. These outcomes make this program one of the most successful programs in Australia for Indigenous student completions.
The focus in our discussion has been on curriculum and delivery and time does not allow for a discussion of research. Suffice to say for the moment that our research must not only inform the teaching that we do – it must also provide practical, real outcomes for our communities in ways that will enhance social capital. This means that there must be a place for the humanities, and for social research programs and for the arts. Australia once aspired to be the ‘Clever Country’ – I would like to think that we now want to be a ‘Wise Country’ because this implies an understanding and depth of reflection that cannot be achieved only through investment in science and technology.
Conclusion In summary I have argued that education, and higher education, is essential for the building of social capital and for social cohesion. To achieve these benefits, however, this education must be available to all sectors of the community, not restricted to a chosen few. Massification has led to a great increase in the number of individuals who now access university. But it has not created a student body which matches the degree of diversification of our communities. Non-traditional groups are still for the most part under represented. The challenge therefore remains for us all to consider our systems, our teaching and learning, our student support mechanisms and our research activities to support the participation of non-traditional students. Universities must fulfil their role of building social cohesion and to do this we must ensure that all sectors of our community have an opportunity to participate.
The job we do is too important not to.
REFERENCES IDP Australia (2004) Global Change Drivers in International Education, IDP Research Paper, Australia.
Kennedy, H. (1997), Learning Works: Widening Participation in FE, Further Education Funding Council Coventry, cited in Leader, G. (2003), ‘Lifelong Learning: policy and practice in further education’, Education and Training, Vol 45, Issue 7 pp 361-370.
Leader, G. (2003), ‘Lifelong Learning: policy and practice in further education’, Education and Training, Vol 45, Issue 7 pp 361-370.
Marginson, S. (2002), ‘Nation-Building Universities in a Global Environment: The case of Australia’, Higher Education vol 43 pp 409-428.
Marginson, S. (2002), ‘What’s Wrong with the Universities?’The Australian Fabian Society Pamphlet No 59.
Newman, F. & Couturier, L. K. (2002) ‘Trading Public Good in the Higher Education Marketplace’, Report for the Observatory on Borderless Education. Retrieved 10 June 2004 from: http://www.obhe.ac.uk/products/reports/pdf/January2002.pdf OECD. (2001). Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000. OECD, Paris.
OECD Discussion paper, (2002), Social Capital and Social Wellbeing, Retrieved 10 January 2003 from: http://www.oecd.org/pdf/M00036000/M00036751.pdf OECD Policy Analysis, (2003), Chapter 1, Diversity, Inclusion and Equity: Insights from Special Needs Provision p12.
OECD, (1996), Lifelong Learning for All, OECD Paris, cited in Leader, G, 2003, Lifelong Learning: policy and practice in further education, Education and Training, Vol 45, Issue 7 pp 361-370.
Poole, M. E. (2004), Australia’s New Generation Universities: A broad data profile, paper prepared for the New Generation Universities Conference, University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, BC Canada.
Poole, M. E. & McFarlane, P. (2003) Engaging the public in Global Issues: What is Higher Education’s Role? Paper presented at American Council on Education, 85 Annual Meeting, Washington 2003.
Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge ,Mass, quoted in OECD Policy Analysis, 2003, Chapter 1, Diversity, Inclusion and Equity: Insights from Special Needs Provision.
Reid, J. (2004), New Generation Universities and the Social Contract, , paper prepared for the New Generation Universities Conference, University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, BC Canada.
Schuetze H. G. & Slowey, M. (2002), ‘Participation and Exclusion: A comparative analysis of non-traditional students and lifelong learners in higher education’, Higher Education Vol. 44 pp 309-327.
Tatum, B. D. (2004) ‘Building a Road to a Diverse Society’, 2004, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2, 2004.
UNESCO, (1996), Learning the treasure within, Report to the UNESCO Commission on Education for the 21thst Century, Paris. Retrieved: 10 January 2003 from: http://www.education.unesco.org/pdf/15_62.pdf Wharton, C. R. (2003), Unity, Knowledge and a Diverse World, address to International Association of University Presidents, United Nations, New York, October 31, 2003.
1 Marginson, S. (2002), ‘What’s Wrong with the Universities?’ The Australian Fabian Society Pamphlet No 59.
2 Marginson, S. (2002), Nation-Building Universities in a Global Environment: The case of Australia, Higher Education vol 43 pp 409-428.
3 UNESCO, (1996), Learning the treasure within, Report to the UNESCO Commission on Education for the 21st Century, Paris. Available: http://www.education.unesco.org/pdf/15_62.pdf
5 OECD Discussion paper (2002), Social Capital and Social Wellbeing, Available: http://www.oecd.org/pdf/M00036000/M00036751.pdf
6 Wharton, C.R. (2003), Unity, Knowledge and a Diverse World, address to International Association of University Presidents, United Nations, New York, October 31, 2003.
7 Newman, F. & Couturier, L.K. (2002) ‘Trading Public Good in the Higher Education Marketplace’, Report for the Observatory on Borderless Education, available at http://www.obhe.ac.uk/products/reports/pdf/January2002.pdf
8 Tatum, B.D (2004) ‘Building a Road to a Diverse Society’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2, 2004
9 Kennedy, H. (1997), Learning Works: Widening Participation in FE, Further Education Funding Council Coventry, cited in Leader, G. (2003), Lifelong Learning: policy and practice in further education, Education and Training, Vol 45, Issue 7 pp 361-370
10 Leader, G. (2003), Lifelong Learning: policy and practice in further education, Education and Training, Vol 45, Issue 7 pp 361-370
12 Poole, M.E. & McFarlane, P. (2003) Engaging the public in Global Issues: What is Higher Education’s Role? Paper presented at American Council on Education, 85th Annual Meeting, Washington 2003.
13 Leader, G. (2003), Lifelong Learning: policy and practice in further education, Education and Training, Vol 45, Issue 7 pp 361-370
14 Schuetze H.G. & Slowey, M. (2002), ‘Participation and Exclusion: A comparative analysis of non-traditional students and lifelong learners in higher education’, Higher Education Vol. 44 pp 309-327
16 OECD. (2001). Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000. OECD, Paris.
17 Poole, M.E. (2004), Australia’s New Generation Universities: A broad data profile, paper prepared for the New Generation Universities Conference, University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, BC Canada.
18 Reid, J. (2004), New Generation Universities and the Social Contract, paper prepared for the New Generation Universities Conference, University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, BC Canada
19 Global Change Drivers in International Education, IDP Research Paper, IDP Australia, 2004.
20 OECD Policy Analysis, (2003), Chapter 1, Diversity, Inclusion and Equity: Insights from Special Needs Provision p12.
22 Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, quoted in OECD Policy Analysis,( 2003), Chapter 1, Diversity, Inclusion and Equity: Insights from Special Needs Provision.
23 Tatum, B.D. (2004) ‘Building a Road to a Diverse Society’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2, 2004