Equity and Diversity

By Julie Willems (RMIT University) and Helen Farley (University of Southern Queensland)

Equity and diversity are two very important considerations in higher education, and especially in the arena of technology. These are research topics that do not necessarily give kudos to the researcher, but they are ethically important considerations not only for students, but also for educators and professional staff, the institutions within which we work, and for our broader society.

In general, equity considerations for students tend to be a concern at a national level, and have been so for decades. In a presentation at the recent Universities Australia 2017 Conference, the Honorable Simon Birmingham, Federal Minister for Education and Training, said:

When I talk about equity and fairness in higher education I have not only participation in mind, but also ensuring successful completion, resulting in improved employment outcomes. Further, equity of access and optimisation of labour market outcomes requires choice right across the tertiary landscape, choice of institution, choice of qualification, choice of academic or skill discipline. While we finalise policy responses on questions of how best to provide that choice, how best to enhance equity of access and incentivise excellence, all of those questions have a common question attached to them. How do we pay for them in times of budget constraint? (Birmingham, 2017, n.p.)

Birmingham’s speech relates to access to, participation in, and completion of, higher education. However, thus defined, these are ethical issues and must be imperatives, rather than tied to dialogues around budget constraints.

An overlay to access, participation and completion are the traditionally disadvantaged groups in Australian higher education: students with disabilities, Indigenous students, regional and remote students, non-English speaking background students who arrived in the last decade, students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, and women in non-traditional disciplines such as STEM. Added to this list of commonly accepted equity categories, are students who are first in the family and the incarcerated. Of importance is the compounding impact of challenges experienced when there is equity group overlap (Willems, 2010).

Yet there are even more layers to considerations of equity and diversity. For organisations such as ASCILITE, the arena of technology equity is an especially important one. Digital equity relates to not only gaining access to the hardware and software, but also acquiring the skills in order to participate. Further, once inside the hallowed walls of academia, digital equity also relates to accessibility standards and inclusive teaching practices.

Within the broader ASCILITE community, there are colleagues who are passionate about issues concerning equity and digital equity. To this end, a Digital Equity special interest group (SIG) is being launched at ASCILITE 2017 (University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba). If you can, please join us at 12pm on Wednesday 6 December in T125 for the fun.

For those who can’t be there in person, if you are interested in joining the SIG, please email us – Dr Julie Willems and/or Assoc. Prof Helen Farley with ‘ASCILITE Digital Equity SIG’ in the email header and we will add you to the communications list.

Finally, if you are interested in learning more in the interim, here are some resources that may be of interest:


Birmingham, S. (1 March 2017). Speech. Universities Australia 2017 Conference: https://ministers.education.gov.au/birmingham/universities-australia-2017-conference

Willems, J. (2010). The Equity Raw-Score Matrix – a multidimensional indicator of potential disadvantage in higher education. HERDSA Journal, 29(6), 603-621.

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