Dr Matthew Bunn, CEEHE Research Fellow

As a sociologist, I have often heard the criticism of not being very practical. In many ways it is a very impatient critique – practical is something that can be applied almost instantly. It is fast, urgent, like patching a leaking roof during a storm. Continuing this analogy, I guess it would be unhelpful if I stood back and observed ‘the roof leaks because it needs to be rebuilt’ or ‘the structure of the roof is leading to some parts of the roof unequally bearing the burden, thus weakening quickly’, or even ‘rich ethically devoid developers built your house and cut corners, and there is no accountability for this lack of roofing integrity’. You patch the hole, and stop the immediate problem.

Labouring the analogy even further, however, it can’t be raining all the time. There must surely come a moment when greater care and planning can be taken to fix the roof properly. If it is raining all the time, living with the leak for a while might just have to happen to figure out the root problems and solve it in lasting ways.

Being ‘practical’ always seems to bear resonance with the status quo. Sure, you might have good ideas but no one would go for it. In our society we debate ideas and this often leads to substantial shifts in the way people perceive, and act. Maybe not immediately, but over time. The ideas that we go to work with are the ones that limit and open the world and the possibilities of action. Recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and debates about the 26th of January and combating misogyny and gendered violence are important examples. They are moments where fighting with ideas turns the tide, and ‘impractical’ things start to look much more possible.

The collection of ideas that underpin practice are no less ‘practical’. They are the things that inform the way that we understand, the things that we see and the things that are made invisible; the things that ‘make sense’ can quickly become nonsense, and vice versa. The fact is, there isn’t a ‘normative’ (i.e. practical) way of seeing things etched into the foundations of our societies. Rather, there is a struggle over what is normative. Normative is always about to happen, but only becomes normative in its contestation. It is in the moments of trying to convince someone that what is normative is normative. Equity work in higher education is a key area where this struggle resides. Ideas about equity and social justice, the ambition to produce parity of participation, these are things that have been built slowly, and far from a teleology, are in an endless process of contestation. Things shift one way, and back the other.

For me, a particular problem is the use of categories like low socioeconomic status and this is a useful example. This is a term frequently used to imply differences in earning, and access to material goods and assets. Yet what it does, in its ‘practical’ measurement, is bury the direct relationships between privilege and deprivation – that in a competitive struggle over scarce goods, some people have faired much much better, and have done so precisely because other people have been deprived. It means giving some people better access to higher education will deny such access to others.

If you take one of these positions on as a way to understand the world the way practice works changes. The things that appear practical become substantially different. A critical imaginary emphasises something bigger than the individual. It means that space is always open for a new explanation, but that fundamentally inequality is not caused by the marginalised, and that this opens new motivations and understandings to bring to practice.

A critical imaginary can mean that change seems difficult, and at times impossible. But this is sometimes a healthy thing: it means that we have to sit with the problem, of not expecting that our own individual power is enough to change the world. A sober, equanimous understanding of individual limits is not really in vogue in late capitalism, but modest intentions can make for monumental shifts: spending time on understanding, or at least improving our understandings can make big changes. A course of action isn’t practical if it is premature. And at the very least, ‘patient praxis’ as Matt Lumb and I have put it, might provide the basis to challenge some of the things that we take on as ‘practical’ measures, even though they sit uncomfortably – even if it is hard to place why. In the end, being prematurely ‘practical’ is not practical enough to provide answers to the problems of inequality that equity work in higher education confronts.

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

An Invitation to Reconceptualise Widening Participation is a series of contributions from across practice and research reflecting the multidimensions of the collective and ongoing work within CEEHE and the international field. The collection articulates key concepts in the project of reconceptualising widening participation inviting us to reexamine and launch new lines of praxis-based inquiry through ongoing conversations across the theory/practice nexus.

Contributions have been posted throughout 2020 and into 2021. Click here to read them all.

Nathan Towney, Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Leadership

Imagine an education system or institution where all staff, students and graduates understand the role they could play in improving life outcomes for marginalised groups. Shouldn’t this be the goal of every University, as they take up the responsibility of educating future policy developers, influencers and implementers?

Recent world events have highlighted the structural discrimination and disadvantage still experienced by marginalised groups, particularly people of colour. Australia is no different. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and communities have been negatively impacted since the time of invasion. The British brought many things to Australia, including ideologies. Bruce Pascoe (2014) outlines how the first colonists were wrought by ideas that their way of life was superior and it was their duty to spread their version of civilisation. Colonial beliefs and commitments have influenced many government policies and structures, creating an endemic cultural bias. These processes of colonisation also dictate what is deemed as important in education settings across the Western world. As Paulo Friere states:

“education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (1968, p.16).

Based on this premise, the Australian education system has been used as a vehicle to attempt to have all students conform to a particular way of thinking, knowing and being, showing a complete disregard for cultural difference. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were thrown into a system that did not make sense to their way of life. The system was attempting to teach knowledge and skills that had no relevance in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Egger, Stevens, Binns and Morgan argue that this systemic approach has resulted in a ‘lack of meaning, alienation and loss of culture’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia (2019).

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018) life expectancy at birth of Indigenous men was 8.6 years lower than for non-Indigenous men, while Indigenous women were 7.8 years lower than that of non-Indigenous women. Indigenous people accounted for over a quarter (28%) of the total adult prison population and over half (53%) of the juvenile detention population. In 2018, the national attendance rate for Indigenous students was 11 % lower than non-Indigenous students (Closing the Gap report, 2019). Indigenous student’s achievement across all areas of NAPLAN remain well below the achievements of non-Indigenous students (Closing the Gap report 2019).

The current system is not working. So what needs to happen to ensure the inequities are acknowledged and the people of power take an approach that is effective and sustainable?

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration (2019, p. 2) states that education has the power to transform lives. It supports young people to realise their potential by providing skills they need to participate in the economy and in society, and contributing to every aspect of their wellbeing. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy (2015, p. 2) outlines a vision that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people achieve their full learning potential, are empowered to shape their own futures, and are supported to embrace their culture and identity as Australia’s First Nations peoples.

A strategic approach is essential in bringing these aspirations to life. An approach that is courageous and dismantles the current structures.

Building the cultural capacity of all staff delivering education would be an important first step. If staff have knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures it allows opportunities for cultural bias to be visible and challenged. It opens educators up to a new way of thinking, being and doing.

To genuinely build the cultural capacity of staff, local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be involved. This creates opportunities for staff to learn, form sustainable relationships and where appropriate engage this local knowledge into education. In turn, the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community feel empowered and have opportunities for their knowledge and expertise to be valued, where historically this has not been the case.

An education institution where all staff, students and graduates learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures is possible. When these practices are sustained and valued as much as other knowledge systems, true partnerships will promote respect and improved life outcomes.

Nathan Towney is the Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Leadership at the University of Newcastle. Nathan is a proud Wiradjuri man from Wellington in NSW and an educational leader. Before joining the University of Newcastle, Nathan was Principal at Newcastle High School and has collaborated with the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education on research and practice initiatives. This post is part of ongoing conversations on social justice and reconceptualising widening participation.

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