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Understanding social equity in Australian universities as a wicked problem

Gibbs, G.F. (2013) Understanding social equity in Australian universities as a wicked problem. In: AARE 2013: Shaping Australian Educational Research, 1 - 5 December 2013, Adelaide, South Australia

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Abstract

Improving social equity in the Australian university sector is a complex and ill-defined problem that is underwritten by the diversity of values and interests inherent in our pluralistic society. It displays all hallmarks of being a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber 1973), including having resisted resolution through federal policy initiatives for more than a quarter a century. This paper utilises the theoretical framework of ‘wicked problems’ to identify a gap in the current understanding of social equity in Australian universities and contribute to a re-framing of the conversation about social equity. Following Krause (2012), this paper proposes improving social equity in the Australian university sector as an ill-defined and under-theorised problem associated with high stakes, national policy- making and funding and theorises problem formulation as a critical generative process in problem resolution. Using discourse analysis this paper demonstrates how the problem of improving social equity in the Australian university sector has been formulated in an increasingly reductive way in contemporary federal higher education policies, from the Dawkins era (late 1980s) to the Bradley era (current). It explains how a one-dimensional understanding of social equity as the proportional representation of specific population subgroups has precipitated a limited approach to problem formulation and resolution. Correspondingly, it shows that the concept of social equity has been diminished through reductive reformulation of key concepts such as ‘access’, conceived in the Dawkins era policies as a means for the achievement of a fair opportunity for success but currently understood, in Bradley era policies, to constitute the sole provision of universities that is to be fairly distributed. Finally, this paper calls for the development a more comprehensive, complex and nuanced formulation of the problem of improving social equity in the Australian university sector and suggests re-framing (Jerneck & Olsson, 2011) as a tool capable of recognizing, acknowledging and addressing the pluralism and multiplicity which underwrite the ‘wicked dynamics’ (Krause 2012) of the problem.

Publication Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation: Centre for University Teaching and Learning
Conference Website: http://aare2013.com.au/
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/21408
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