In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Student Access, Equity, and Diversity in Higher Education

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Access
  • Equity
  • Diversity

Education Student Access, Equity, and Diversity in Higher Education
Andrew Harvey, Jennifer Stokes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0217


The global expansion of higher education continues apace. According to the typology in Trow’s chapter in 2007, many nations have now entered an era of universal higher education. Despite high overall growth, many groups nevertheless remain under-represented. Most notably, university access is typically limited for people who are financially disadvantaged, have a disability, hail from certain ethnic groups, are Indigenous, and/or live in rural areas. Unequal access raises issues both of social justice and of economic productivity. Nations unable to broaden access to under-represented groups may suffer negative social, democratic, and economic consequences. Despite this imperative, few nations maintain a higher education system that is reflective of their broader population. Higher education is often perceived as a positive force for social mobility, yet it can also serve to reify established structures of class, gender, and ethnicity. Equity remains a contested concept. Proponents of formal equality argue that meritocratic higher education is possible where formal, legal barriers of discrimination are removed. An opposing view holds that structural inequity is so deep that the removal of formal university barriers is necessary but insufficient to deliver fairness. By this view, equity requires more active measures to promote access and success for under-represented groups. Conflicting views of student equity are often represented in affirmative action debates. Many countries provide compensation, bonus points, or other forms of preferential access to support identified disadvantaged groups. Most notably, the United States remains deeply conflicted over the merits and legality of race-based affirmative action, whereby African American, Latino, and other students may be provided preferential access to public and private universities. While attempts to broaden access are made on equity grounds, the importance of student diversity is also often emphasized. Diversity may include ethnicity, gender, age, religion, and other geo-demographic characteristics. Advocates of student diversity highlight research that shows increased quality of learning where the student group holds a wide range of views informed by different backgrounds. This idea of “inclusive excellence” is informed by broader economic arguments of productive diversity and research into behavioral psychology. Alongside growing student diversity in higher education has been a focus on how universities manage that diversity. Studies on campus climate have explored how different student groups experience and identify with their university and the strengths that different groups can bring to higher education.


Many higher education journals include articles relevant to the field. Two journals specifically focus on widening participation issues. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning publishes theoretical and empirical research, including articles on innovative practice and continuing education. International Studies in Widening Participation publishes critical and pedagogical research from international and Australasian perspectives.

  • International Studies in Widening Participation. Nova, Australia. 2014–.

    This University of Newcastle journal produces two editions per year focused on widening participation and international perspectives. Critical, interdisciplinary research is published with particular attention dedicated to inclusive pedagogy, retention, and transition; online and on-campus learning; student engagement and policy; and research and praxis from Australasian and international academics and researchers.

  • Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. 1999–.

    This Open University journal produces three to four editions per year focused on further education, university engagement, and lifelong learning in the context of widening participation. With a global contributor base and editorial board, the journal publishes articles grounded in theoretical perspectives and empirical research. The journal is also committed to reporting on innovative practice that engages under-represented students with learning at university.

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