• CEEHE

Jace Blunden, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education


In a recent CEEHE whole team meeting, my colleague, Felicity Cocuzzoli, engaged us with a photo elicitation activity. We were presented with a pile of images, scissors, glue, paper of various colours and textures, and a tub of multicoloured sharpies. We were asked to find images that spoke to our work on a personal level – that offered voice to how we understand and value what we do.


As I ruminate on what I created in those short minutes as I was cutting and pasting – transported back to the arty-crafty kid I once was, and seemed to have misplaced along the way - I realise I have a visual representation of my complicated and difficult relationship with education, one that also relates to why I do what I do, and why it is meaningful and valuable to me.


To put it bluntly, university is not for the likes of me. I was born into a social strata where tertiary education happens to other people. The conditions are stacked against people with my background and, despite the rhetoric of inclusion, my attending university, finding success in university and turning that degree into a career represents a statistical anomaly.


Yet, here I am.


If we look at my collage, it begins in the lower right corner: homeless.



I wasn’t born into homelessness. My parents lived in a small, working class cottage in Cooks Hill. I imagine the property now has quite the value, 40 years ago this wasn’t the case. Regardless, I don’t remember it, my dad left, vanishing when I was a toddler, sold the property, and assets that were all conveniently in his name, and left us with nothing.

For the next half a dozen years we didn’t have a stable roof. I would occasionally stay with my grandparents, but they wouldn’t allow my mum there, as she had somehow brought shame on the family.


When I was nine we were accepted into a Housing Commission property. A small apartment in a large block of equally small apartments, in the centre of a huge neighbourhood if identical structures. You may know of these places as The Projects, the Council Estate, The Banlieue or The Ghetto. Places, to use the words of French sociologist, Loic Waquant (1996; 2008), the outside world labels as ‘neighbourhoods of exile', ‘social purgatories’ and ‘leprous badlands’ where only the ‘refuse of society would agree to dwell’. And there I dwelled for the next decade, a ‘Houso Kid’, surrounded by despair, degradation, violence, social exclusion and abuse. I escaped by reading. I would read whatever was in front of me. I read shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, the liner notes of LP records – even wandering down to sit in the waiting room at the local GP to read ancient magazines.


I soon gained the courage to talk to my school librarian, who took me under her wing and piled me with as many books as I could carry.


I read horror stories, fantasy novels, history books, encyclopaedias - anything. But it didn’t translate to the classroom. I was considered disruptive, hyperactive and argumentative. Teachers threw chalk at me for talking, stuck me in corners and insulted me for my poor handwriting. I spent many lunchtimes picking up garbage or sitting outside the principal’s office on detention.


But my love of reading and facts put me at odds with my peers in the Housing Commission. They called me ‘professor’ and abused me for daring to exist differently -they felt I thought I was better than them.


Meanwhile, my family would always tell me “You’ll go to university one day.”


“You’ll be the first one of us to go” is something I was often told growing up.


There was a sense of recognition there. I was being hailed as different. Different: with both the positive and negative connotations attached.


I didn’t even know what university was. No one in my family had even finished high-school. I remember one Christmas my cousin was en-route to the family gathering with her new boyfriend. As an avid eavesdropper, I learned that he had been to university. I was instructed to be on my best behaviour and display my best manners.


University people were obviously important, but also different.

Better?


As I grew older, the talk of me attending higher education continued. Matter of fact. Done deal.


Perhaps it was because I read for enjoyment, not necessity. I watched the news with interest. Consumed encyclopedias and asked for Trivial Pursuit for my birthday.


Again, that sense of recognition set me apart. I had a sense that I wasn’t trapped where I was. I could do and be more.


“He’ll go to university, that one.”


Was it me, or did I occasionally hear contempt in that statement?


The problem being, I didn’t have the faintest idea what someone did at university. What was it for? How did you get there?


I was a Houso Kid. My family, and the people I knew, didn’t view education as something for them – let alone something they could advise me on. My peers at school who saw university in their future already seemed to have everything planned out and seemed to manoeuvre and operate within the school system with ease. I held onto my ignorance. It was so delicately wrapped in my pride.


The people I knew with jobs did things like labouring, cooking, house cleaning – jobs in which the pathway to employment was as only as long as it took to turn up and prove you could do it. Nothing with so fancy a term as a career. No one ever talked about their ‘trajectory’.


The extent of my knowledge of how to get into university was ‘do the HSC and get the marks’. I didn’t know what courses were available or where to find that information (this was pre-internet, for the record). I didn’t know how to study effectively….


I stumbled my way through the UAC application.


I applied for English teaching. I was able to choose that because I knew what that was. I didn’t know what engineering was. I didn’t know what social science was. I thought ‘Art degrees’ were about painting. It took a while to realise that ‘English Teacher’ wasn’t in the manual. I didn’t know what a ‘bachelor’ was.


I sat my HSC but I did not get those marks.


I stopped thinking about university because I didn’t realise there could be a second chance.

I accidentally stumbled into a hospitality career.


Fast forward a decade – chatting at a party, I heard about this thing called Open Foundation. A second chance.


That earlier sense of recognition fired up.


“He’ll go to university one day.”


So, I did. I quit my job that week, enrolled and completed Open Foundation in a whirlwind six months.


My marks were excellent and I enrolled in a Bachelor of Communications.

I lasted 18 months and dropped out.


Another decade passed.


I still read voraciously. I came across the term ‘Human Geography’. I looked it up and discovered exactly what I was looking for. A little light went on.


I re-enrolled: Social Science majoring in Human Geography.


A third chance.


A few weeks in I discovered a book called Learning to Labour: why working-class kids get working class jobs, by Paul Willis, and I saw myself.


I saw myself in the analysis. I saw the hidden social architectures and power structures that had, in turn, obscured the university pathway from me, even though others could see it so clearly. I had been recognised my whole life as someone who was university bound but was never given the skills of knowledge on how to get there. As if I had been given the postcard, but never the map. I saw what led my family and my peers to view education as ‘not for the likes of us’, with suspicion, confusion and envy that often brewed into contempt.


As my degree continued, despite my good grades, I always felt like an imposter. Small. Why didn’t I belong? Why was I still intimidated? I never had the confidence to think ‘Ps mean Degrees’ because that philosophy only served the people the university was designed for – those who understood that a degree was a means to an end – a necessary path on a longer journey. I didn’t realise that my goal was only their pit stop. I felt I had to get higher marks just to prove I was worthy of my place. I developed a very closed minded view of what success was. At that point a poor mark, or even an average one, was a sign I wasn’t cut out for study. I now know that simply turning up and engaging with this alien world could be defined as a success.


The university campus, the classrooms and lecture theatres were never comfortable – the dynamics, expectations and modes of being were nothing less than alien. Never safe or knowable. Never easy.


I earned really good marks. But at a huge emotional and physical toll.


I did it, though. I graduated with Distinction from a world whose culture, mode of being and approved knowledges – as well as its sense of exclusivity and prestige – was designed not to include me. When my testamur came in the mail, it marked the first time in my life, at 41 years-old, that I had followed through and finished anything.


Anything.


Now I work here, at CEEHE, and help other people like me. Others who ‘don’t belong’. I climbed that ladder and now I get to reach back down and pull others up behind me.

More than that, with this role is the recognition that there is nothing wrong with who I was and where I am from. Educational institutions position themselves as normative. That those who come from elsewhere need to adapt to the values of the institution. That aspiration only equals aspiring to those modes of being. Teaching others to be more ‘middle class’ does not interest me. The real work is to make the institution recognise that people outside its traditional aperture aren’t ‘wrong’ or in deficit – but have rich skill sets, strengths, values, knowledges and modes of being that can be of benefit.


Outside of raising children, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

That’s why I’m here. To help those like me, out there in any way I can. Widening participation programs abound, but the aperture still isn’t open enough and the obstacles are invisible to those who never had to wrestle with them.


It’s not enough to help people over those obstacles. It’s not enough to point them out to those that can’t see them.


They need to be dismantled. The barriers to even seeing that the pathways exist removed.

Even though I struggled, I recognise the privilege I had. If not for that librarian I may still be reading the back of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles. If not for that early recognition that university was a possibility, no matter how vague, I might never have had the word ‘university’ in my head as a possibility at all.


“You’ll go to university, one day”, they said, with barely concealed contempt.


Now they’ll have to crowbar me out of here.

 

Reading:


Wacquant, L. (1996) ‘Red belt, black belt: racial division, class inequality and the state in the French periphery and the American ghetto’, in Mingione, E. (ed), Urban poverty and the underclass: a reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, p. 234-274.


Wacquant, L. (2008) Urban outcasts: a comparative sociology of advanced marginality, Cambridge: Polity Press.


 

We acknowledge and respect the Gadigal peoples of the Eora Nation and the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.


Updated: Sep 26, 2021

Dr Jean Parker, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education


Here at CEEHE we recently completed a project that had a “systematic literature review” as one of its elements. Since the 1990s such systematic reviews have become prominent methods of policy evaluation, especially favoured by governments. And yet we found profound limitations when we tried to undertake one according to the methods outlined by proponents.


Based on this experience, researchers in CEEHE are looking critically at the evolution of systematic review as a ‘gold standard’ in policy evaluation. We are examining the way that systematic reviewing has been adopted in social science research and policy evaluation in Australia, and the negative impacts this has had on our understanding of what constitutes “evidence” in our field. In this blog we report on our developing argument that systematic reviews produce very little insight into questions of equity in higher education, and should not be recommended for learning about trends in higher education.


Clegg (2005) provides an excellent account of the emergence of systematic review in the UK in the 1990s. Under Tony Blair’s Labour government, systematic review methodologies were promoted as part of a technocratic rebellion against academic expertise. Policy makers wanted the “evidence” of “what works” in order to best target rapidly diminishing public funds. They saw academic experience as a source of “bias” in getting to this evidence. As Clegg puts it: “In recent times we have seen that the argument against professional knowledge is being deployed by policy-makers, influenced by cost considerations.” (Clegg, p.417).


Maclure (2005) also sees systematic reviewing methods as inherently suspicious of and opposed to scholarship and the elements that go into critical academic analysis:


“Systematic review, and the ‘evidence movement’ (Oakley, 2003, p. 23) from which it emerged, thus continually recycles a ‘discourse of distrust’ of education professionals and academics (Torrance, 2004, p. 3). Research, and researchers, are repeatedly reported or implied to be careless, undemocratic, furtive (i.e., prone to ‘hide failures’), biased, incompetent, ‘chaotic’, ‘inward-looking and self-seeking’, ‘methodologically impoverished’ and even potentially life-threatening” (Maclure p.396).

Both authors note the role played by the ‘Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre’ – or EPPI-Centre (based at the University College London) as a standard bearer and advocate for systematic review. EPPI-Centre applied the tools that medical researchers had developed to derive the best evidence from huge numbers of medical studies (known as metanalyses or systematic reviews) and applied these to questions of social policy. EPPI-Centre developed a detailed and rigid set of methods for systematic review, which they promoted as best-practice in research to inform policy decisions.


However, the nature of the studies and the types of evidence that go into medical meta-analyses are fundamentally different from studies of higher education. Most systematic reviews in science evaluate and synthesise large numbers of randomised control trials. They look for efficacy of a drug or treatment under experimental conditions where there are control groups and therefore counterfactuals.


In contrast, studies looking at the nature of inequity in higher education are performed in particular universities that are emersed in a messy social reality. They happen amidst constantly changing social and individual pressures, all of which can influence student outcomes. The complexity of the social forces at play in any study examining equity policy make it impossible to empirically isolate which factors lead to which outcomes:


“Experimentation in the social sciences and education takes place in open conditions. In most designs in the social sciences and education, if they are not trivial, both the inputs… and the outcomes (e.g. student learning) are complex.” (Clegg p.421)

This does not mean we should abandon attempts to study programs, let alone abandon funding and developing those programs! It means researchers need to rely on critical analysis to make a case as to which factors create which outcomes.


There is a fundamental dissonance between the design of systematic review and the kinds of evidence that developments in higher education provide. Systematic review provides no space for, indeed is hostile to, the analytical work needed to make a case for the key underlying drivers of complex social trends and changes. For all the rigour of its methods, there is a fundamental void when it comes to what social research actually needs – coherent and theoretically informed accounts of how programs can meet the differing needs of underrepresented students. Ignoring this, and forcing systematic review techniques onto higher education researchers represents a waste of resources, as the outcome of these studies are so limited. It also pulls research, and what is understood as “rigour” in a direction that limits our understanding of how to increase equity for underrepresented students.


Dr Jean Parker and Dr Matthew Bunn will be presenting and writing on this work in the coming months.

 

References:


Clegg, S. (2005). Evidence‐based practice in educational research: A critical realist critique of systematic review. British journal of sociology of education, 26(3), 415-428.


MacLure, M. (2005). ‘Clarity bordering on stupidity’: where’s the quality in systematic review?. Journal of Education Policy, 20(4), 393-416.

 

We acknowledge and respect the Gadigal peoples of the Eora Nation and the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.

Dr Rhyall Gordon, Praxis Officer at CEEHE


At CEEHE, we place a lot of emphasis on the idea of praxis as an important means to self and societal transformation. Although the basic idea of praxis is to put ideas into practice, thinkers over many epochs have developed different understandings of the purpose and potential of praxis. Hannah Arendt’s work on a particular understanding of praxis offers a compelling argument as to why we should think about what we do!!


It may seem a little redundant to point out the need to think about what we do, however, it is an interesting exercise to explore the moments where we deny ourselves and/or are denied opportunities to do this thinking – something we all experience. Arendt’s work, in the context of being a Jewish German that fled Nazi Germany, was motivated by an attempt to understand totalitarianism, authority, democracy and power. Her context gives a gravity and urgency to the need to understand moments of oppression. However, she also coined the term the “banality of evil” where she exposed the mundane, everyday practices that can add up to horrendous human harm. It is this latter focus that I feel has the potential to create a productive discomfort and disruption in the work of evaluation.


Arendt’s notion of praxis (or as she describes it – “to think what we are doing”) was particularly focused on its relationship to values and ethics. Thinking and reflecting on action taken, or to be taken, is really the main part of constructing a theory. Arendt questioned the belief that to come up with a theory you must lock yourself away – whether it is in the ivory tower, university or in a hut by a pond in a forest – because of a concern that talking to people (the public as she describes it or everyday thinking/thinkers), might somehow be a contaminating influence. She described this approach as the contemplative life; a belief in how to produce knowledge that is certainly as prevalent today as it was when Arendt was writing.


Such an approach to knowledge production is why theory is often “parked outside” the focus of all sorts of work whether it be policymakers, practitioners, evaluation experts and even researchers(!!). It is seen to be something arcane with little real-life application. Also, it implies a prescribed valuing of knowledge in certain domains and de-valuing in others. In contrast, Arendt described another approach to thinking (or theory making) where you directly engage with others (everyday thinkers) to explore your thinking. She described this as the active life. Through highlighting these different approaches to thinking, she developed her concept of praxis and argued for the importance of the interplay or conversation between theory and practice, between reflection and action – each without the other is much reduced.


A significant part of Arendt’s work was dedicated to overcoming this western split of thinking and practice being separate stand-alone endeavours. It is this split that creates the conditions for a theoryphobia to proliferate. When we take up practices (for example widening participation practitioners) we can often carry an identity of it not being our role to think, theorise and reflect on our work. It will be someone else’s job to come in and do that. In the same way Arendt highlighted the danger of thinking without others or the public, she also highlighted the danger of practice that happens without thinking or action that happens without reflection. As a consequence, Arendt rejected the title of philosopher to emphasize how her work was embedded in practice.


Instead, she sought to bring together thinking and practice in this simple description of “to think what we are doing”. It is a deceptively simply statement, however, often, and probably increasingly so, widening participation projects are undertaken without the opportunity to think about what we do. At times, this lack of opportunity comes from ourselves and how we place limits. At other times, this lack of opportunity comes from elsewhere as limitations are placed on us. The corporatized, marketized and neoliberalised university structure typically does not encourage a profound reflection on projects of social justice. And this lack of opportunity is particularly true in the world of evaluation and no less so in the world of evaluating widening participation initiatives.


Arendt described this idea of action without reflection or practice without theory as a type of thoughtlessness and she devoted much of her work to discussing the many dangers that come from such thoughtlessness. She argued that there is a particular kind of evil rooted in thoughtlessness. In her work on the banality of evil, the banal referred to how non-thinking had become ordinary and common place. Arendt believed this non-thinking was pivotal to the horrendous acts of Germany’s national socialism.


A question Arendt wanted us to consider is how spaces are created by ourselves and by others through power and authority that remove the opportunity for thinking and reflection. Her work, by way of response, was to foreground the importance and defend the opportunity to think reflectively about our actions.


In terms of thinking about evaluation, how does Arendt’s work assist us and what does it enable? It allows widening participation practitioners to understand evaluation as a space of praxis where discussion, reflection, contestation needs to happen. This space has the potential to do many things, but one very important aspect is that it allows for a testing, a trying out, an exploration and development of values, ethics and commitments that inform an evaluation. How often do such spaces get created in widening participation work? And what is involved in creating such spaces?


Also, it brings in a sociality to our work. Arendt’s praxis, this “think what we are doing”, is not an individual pursuit. Arendt emphasizes that rather than a solitary project this has to be a shared, relational experience that reflects our interdependency. We support each other with the different skills, knowledge and experiences we have to engage in this reflective thinking. In the context of equity interventions where there are many people involved, the praxis process needs to be a cooperative endeavour where people participate in different ways with the different skills and knowledges they have in an evaluation process. This is one way of fully engaging the politics of knowledge and challenging knowledge hierarchies that serve to reproduce exclusions and undermine widening participation work.


Furthermore, praxis disrupts deficit narratives and locked in visions of the future, something that haunts so much of widening participation work. An unchallenged consideration of the past and future (how we remember things and anticipate things) creates a linearity that limits opportunity for other futures. Arendt described praxis as a temporal interval. Reflective thinking allows this gap to emerge, opening up an undetermined future with new possibilities. This is both important for how we approach evaluation but equally it is also important for how we undertake widening participation practice more broadly.


Finally, Arendt’s work might help us to see how widening participation work and evaluation practice need to co-exist in the same space. Evaluation is a key component of any widening participation project that needs to be embedded in the project and driven by similar equity goals. This is the shift from evaluation on equity to evaluation for equity.


 

Reference:

Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.

 

We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.