How can we understand diversity in higher education systems?

Hart, Caroline Sarojini (2016). 'How can we understand diversity in higher education systems?' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

Twenty-first century international development agendas embrace higher education as a pillar of social and economic progress.  Yet there is dissonance in terms of the paradigms and priorities shaping the nature and purpose of tertiary education.  This in turn is reflected in the evolution of a variety of complex higher education systems and policies in different local, national and global contexts. Moreover, little attention is given to the different forms of diversity that may be found within these expanding and nuanced systems and related policy frameworks.  There are multiple potential foci for action to develop higher education, driven by a plethora of questions stemming from varied perspectives.  For instance, how can we identify pathways towards enhanced quality provision in relation to individual opportunities, experiences and outcomes in, and through, higher education?  How can teaching practices develop to support equitable, high quality and inclusive higher education? Is success to be judged in relation to individual student experience, the academic community, wider society, or in economic terms? 
The aim of this conceptual paper is to deepen sociological understandings of different forms of diversity in higher education, particularly related to the conceptualisation and evaluation of quality, equity and inclusion. Informed by the capability approach, the critical analysis examines discourses of diversity and questions assumptions about these three concepts of quality, equity and inclusion.  Indeed, the UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development calls for, ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’ (2015, para.25).  The analysis presented here is important because, for example, a common thread in contemporary discourses of higher education is based on the importance of ‘quality’ in terms of teaching, learning and research.  This is reflected in national and international development policies and evaluation frameworks.  However, despite the apparent commonality, perceptions of what constitutes quality, and how it might be measured, vary widely.  Similar dilemmas arise when defining and measuring what constitutes equity and inclusion in higher education.  This paper argues that these concepts are inextricably entwined yet vitally important in thinking about how higher education may be developed to support human development.
In particular, the dissonance in the ways in which educational institutions can reproduce many social inequalities and yet have transformative potential for certain individuals is foregrounded. Drawing on the capability approach an argument is developed for greater scrutiny and critique of dominant discourses in relation to the core concepts highlighted.  It is argued that the way we conceive quality drives the criteria by which it is measured.  This influences the practice of higher education with both potentially beneficial and detrimental effects.
The work is based on a policy analysis of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and recent UK policy regarding the assessment and evaluation of quality in higher education. Informed by the scholarship of thinkers such as Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, Rabindranath Tagore, Harry Brighouse and Ronald Barnett the paper explores contrasting possibilities for conceptualising dimensions of quality and purpose in diverse higher education settings.  These dimensions may inform the development of criteria to understand quality in diverse higher education contexts from a capability perspective.

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