Dec 14 2022 | Posted by wun

Equity in higher education requires bold action


Precise goals and bold schemes are necessary to create greater equity in higher education, says Andrew Parfitt.

Parfitt, Vice-chancellor and President of the University of Technology Sydney, detailed the specific tactics at work on his campus in Australia at the Worldwide Universities Network Annual General Meeting Presidents Forum. Addressing fellow scholars from around the world, he acknowledged that the specifics of lessening inequity will vary by context.

For 30 years, Parfitt says, his university worked to increase the number of women in STEM programs. Although the figures rose and fell incrementally over that time, the engineering degree programs were 17% women at the start and 17% at the end. The stagnation reflected a lack of “substantial structural shift,” says Parfitt.

To make real progress, he says, the engineering and IT faculty instituted adjustment factors to the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR, that public universities use to assess prospective students. The adjustment allowed more women to gain entry into the programs and produced some real headway toward gender parity. This decision had its detractors.

“Horror,” is how Parfitt described that reaction. Critics said the effort was “diminishing the value of a degree.” And yet, he said, after 30 years of work that didn’t pay off, “I think I’m prepared to cop a bit of outrage.”

The target is 30% women, he said, which would be “self-sustaining because a young woman in school can look at engineering” and see herself there.

This program was recently evaluated. Prior to the introduction of the scheme, women participation in the selected programs was around 18-19% – marginally better than the Australian workforce, where 13% of all engineers are women, and less than 20% of technical roles in IT are filled by women. In the two years since the scheme was introduced, women participation in the UTS programs has grown to 25% (2021) and 28% (2022).

The moral, he said, is that “you have to do things that are controversial if the system doesn’t work.”

Efforts to include Indigenous students hold another lesson for accomplishing real gains toward equity, says Parfitt. The goal is to have three Indigenous students in every 100, thereby representing the Australian population as a whole. To do this, the University of Technology of Sydney accepts all Indigenous students who are prepared for the academic work, Parfitt says. The university then surrounds them with support, including the planned construction of an Indigenous residential college.

“It costs a lot of money but you have to commit to doing those sorts of things if you’re going to make a difference,” he said.

The final component of his argument was that access to technology is crucial to achieving equity in higher education. Parfitt cites connections between the university and local industry as a potential way to solve the issue, one that also depends on investment. The specific goal in this area is to have 100% of the students on broadband internet.

Parfitt concluded by encouraging the larger WUN group to commit to specific targets to “hold ourselves mutually accountable to the investments we make that will overcome inequity.”

This talk is available on YouTube, view it here: