The University of Newcastle, Australia

Subtle processes of exclusion and marginalization

Image of Penny Jane Burke

Equity is not only about lifting concrete barriers but is also about addressing historical exclusions and subtle processes in which the knowledge, experiences and cultures of some communities across the world have been marginalized and ignored, whilst others have been privileged and given prestige and status.

Equity in higher education poses serious challenges because it is bound up with long-standing and deeply entrenched historical inequalities. Our frameworks for equity must be designed with great sensitivity to the profound impact of historically embedded inequalities.

Higher education is historically a space of exclusion - who is seen as having the right to higher education is attached to constructions of potential and capability that value certain histories, knowledge and ways of being and exclude others.


We often think about equity as about providing ‘fair access’ and treating everyone the same. Research foregrounds that we need to be sensitive to difference in the ways we develop both research and practice.

It is imperative to challenge deficit constructions associated with equity. Categorizations are a useful device to identify an appropriate target group for the redistribution of resources, but also contribute to the perpetuation of social divisions and hierarchies through reducing that person or group to one aspect of identity, often in ways that reinforce stigma.

Research has the capacity to shed light on and thus challenge the damaging cycles of misrecognition and misrepresentation that serve to reproduce deep-seated inequalities in and through higher education. Through such research, we can develop inclusive, reflexive and participatory methodological and pedagogical frameworks that recognize, and work with, difference.


Research uncovers that locating equity units at the peripheries of higher education, and failing to ensure that equity strategies and initiatives are institutionally embedded and research-informed, often has the unfortunate effect of reproducing inequalities.

Detaching equity from the main work of the university fails to embed a culture of inclusivity into institutional structures, practices and values.

This legacy of misrecognition shapes views of who can be a university student and restricts our imaginations about what is possible. As a result, precious resources are wasted and opportunities are missed to redistribute opportunities and life chances to those groups and communities who have been historically under-represented in higher education on multiple levels.

Building equitable higher education is imperative to all of our futures - growing inequalities pose a threat to all of us on multiple levels and higher education has a key role to play in ensuring more socially just and thus peaceful and stable societies into the future. The power of higher education is immeasurable and profound.

We need a praxis-based approach to equity that brings interdisciplinary and critical research in dialogue with policy and practice, in reciprocal, interdisciplinary and collaborative frameworks.

Professor Penny Jane Burke in the media: