Equity Policy and Knowledge in Australian Higher Education

Equity Policy and Knowledge in Australian Higher Education

Matthew Brett
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6202-5.ch004
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This chapter explores the role of knowledge within Australian higher education policy with specific emphasis on student equity. The Australian higher education system is designed to pursue teaching-, research-, and equity-related objectives. Teaching- and research-related objectives are broadly and successfully fulfilled through policy and funding, which facilitates these activities. Equity-related objectives are broadly pursued by policy and funding that aims to change the composition of staff and student populations engaged in teaching and research. Progress towards policy objectives of equity of access and participation remains elusive. This chapter examines the prominence of tacit and explicit forms of knowledge within equity policy as a factor in the efficacy of equity policy. Through examining Australian higher education equity policy through a knowledge-centric lens, elements of equity group-specific policy are found to have broader utility, with implications for policy design and reform.
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An objective of Australian higher education policy as articulated in the Australian Higher Education Support Act 2003 (Commonwealth) Section 2–1(a)(i) is to support a higher education system characterized by quality, diversity and equity of access. Quality, diversity and equity of access are often seen as non–synergistic concepts that operate in a zero–sum game. Public commentary within the Australian higher education trade press highlights the perceived trade–offs between quality, diversity and equity, with the headline accompanying the first public interview of the incoming Minister for Education suggesting “It’s quality not quantity for Pyne” (Ross, 2013). The commentary reveals the tensions implicit in achieving quality, diversity and equity of access and the challenges of leadership and management in higher education. Challenges in managing higher education policy tensions are not new, and emerge from the interplay between the internal disposition of universities, and external contextual factors of society, economy and government (Karmel, 1990). Dimensions of collegiate management, quality and excellence, for example, are in tension with managerial governance, quantity, and equality. Where these tensions are unresolved, there is continuing pressure from policy actors to place issues of interest on the agenda for higher education policy reform. The public policy process encounters diverse expectations associated with higher education, and the resulting outcomes are not always ideal or effective.

In this chapter I consider the nagging question of whether there is a better way of improving performance against equity policy objectives, approaching this challenge from a knowledge centric perspective. The Higher Education Support Act 2003 (Cth) Section 2–1(b) also describes the purposes of universities in terms of knowledge creation, advancement and application. As with other policy objectives, progress against knowledge–related objectives is contested. There is, for example, continuing debate around the optimal distribution of research funding across the higher education sector. Despite this debate, one can readily demonstrate that knowledge is being created, advanced and applied through considering increasing numbers of graduates, increasing funding for research, and continued growth in the number of journal articles that are published.

As I will demonstrate in this chapter, similar claims of progress are more difficult to make for equity. I consider theoretical issues associated with knowledge, and apply specific knowledge management tools to analysis of higher education equity policy. Given that there is not an extensive literature on knowledge management and higher education policy, this analysis is necessarily exploratory in nature. Following on from this analysis, I identify reforms to higher education equity policy which might lead to better equity of access, through

  • An assessment of progress against equity of access policy objectives,

  • The identification of knowledge related dimensions of higher education equity policy, and

  • The identification of improvements to equity policy.

This approach will argue for the utility of knowledge management frameworks in policy analysis, and offer insights into the effective design of higher education equity policy.


Australian Higher Education And Equity Policy

The orientation of Australian higher education is more public than private. Universities exist by virtue of legislation, derive the majority of their funding directly through government, and operate in accordance with government regulatory frameworks. The public orientation remains dominant, notwithstanding a trend towards reducing proportions of university budgets derived from state funding. Government support for the sector in 2011/12 exceeded $12 billion, and includes expenditure on teaching, research and student income support (Norton, 2013). Not surprisingly, the government expects this investment to deliver on broader social, cultural and economic policy objectives.

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