Equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive: A discussion of academic standards in an era of widening participation

Gail Whiteford, Mahsood Shah*, Chenicheri Sid Nair

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    31 Citations (Scopus)


    Purpose: Social inclusion policies in the higher education sector are implemented to ensure that all people - irrespective of socioeconomic background - have rights of access and the opportunities needed to participate and, ultimately, succeed. In Australia, and in other countries such as the UK, the USA, New Zealand and South Africa such policies are reflective of a commitment to the government's social inclusion agenda particularly aimed at improving access and participation of those from disadvantaged and low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Such a commitment arrives at an historic moment in countries like Australia and the UK when there is a concurrent national renewal of quality assurance in higher education with a particular focus on academic standards. The purpose of this paper is to stimulate discussion on the extent to which a national social inclusion agenda may impact academic standards and student outcomes. Design/methodology/approach: The authors argue that contemporary trends such as increasing student diversity, changing pattern of student participation, differentiated levels of preparedness for tertiary education and new modes of learning, will continue to grow and will not in and of themselves affect academic standards. The authors contend that it is the responsibility of higher education institutions to respond proactively to the diverse needs of students whilst ensuring that academic standards are maintained. In this way, the fulfilment of an essentially transformative moral purpose in higher education may also be achieved. Findings: The evidence presented in this paper from various contexts suggests that a social inclusion agenda related to increasing the equity of access and participation of disadvantaged students does not have a negative impact on academic standards and outcomes. However, such commitment to widening participation requires the active "buy in" of a number of stakeholders. Originality/value: The paper shows that institutions of higher education need to plan for and actively support the development of environments in which all people can realise their potential and are provided with the knowledge and skill sets they in turn will require in order to contribute to society.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)299-310
    Number of pages12
    JournalQuality Assurance in Education
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


    • Academic standards
    • Australia
    • Disadvantaged groups
    • Government policy
    • Higher education
    • Social inclusion
    • United Kingdom


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