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Promoting equal access to university

International league tables in tertiary education provide useful comparisons about rankings and research outputs – but how do universities perform when it comes to providing equal access?

The University of Newcastle’s (UON) Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) plans to find an answer through the creation of a world-first global equity index to show how access to post-secondary education compares across the world.

Led by Professor Geoff Whitty, a world-renowned scholar in education equity, the Global Access Map will be based on a survey of 50 countries to determine how access is measured and who is marginalised according to their socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion or gender.

The project is supported by, multinational publishing and education company, Pearson PLC and the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education (GAPS) Initiative. The first stage will be a feasibility study, which is due to report next year, and the ultimate aim is to have an equity measure included in existing league tables.

“Access to post-secondary education is one of the defining characteristics of economic and social prosperity in the 21st century,” Whitty said, who in March took up a position as Global Innovation Chair for Equity in Higher Education at UON.

“Education is one of the most effective ways for a nation to enhance social mobility, cultural cohesion, and economic productivity.”

A former high school history and sociology teacher, Whitty has been interested in improving access to education for marginalised groups since he volunteered to teach immigrant children in London in the 1960s.

His career has spanned academic and senior management posts in higher education, and for more than 10 years he ran the world-renowned Institute of Education at the University of London. As a leading scholar and policy advisor on equity in education, he has evaluated major interventions to tackle educational disadvantage and for more than 30 years has been involved in an ongoing longitudinal study of the educational and career trajectories of academically able children from different schools and social backgrounds.

Whitty now spends part of the year in Newcastle, where he is advising on CEEHE’s strategic direction.

He says providing the evidence base on equal access to higher education is particularly important in the current political climate, as Australia enters “unchartered waters” by proposing to remove the fee cap.

“Newcastle is an unusual university in that it combines a very strong commitment to research excellence with a very strong commitment to social inclusion – and this is something we should be protecting,” Whitty said. “The Go8 universities recruit fewer than 10 per cent students overall from low socioeconomic backgrounds, while Newcastle recruits 24 per cent.”

“There is a danger that universities that are low charging and high equity will have problems under the new regime and therefore there ought to be some national mechanism to help maintain the social inclusiveness of universities.”

Whitty believes a key priority in closing the participation gap is to improve education in schools for socially disadvantaged children, and to recognise that school achievement is not the only indicator of success at university.

His landmark research in the United Kingdom has shown that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who show promise perform as least as well at university as children from private schools, even if their school results are not as high.

CEEHE will advise the government and disseminate research evidence and good practice around equity in education throughout Australia and internationally. Its research themes include culture and equity, access and student experience, community wellbeing and education policy.

Learn more about UON’s Faculty of Education and the Arts Research Directions in 2015. 

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