Marketing or Widening Access? Reflections on the global access agenda

Monday 12-10-2015 - 16:22

On 8 October 2015, Beth Button, President of NUS Wales, addressed the closing plenary of the Global Access to Postsecondary Education conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Speaking to over 100 senior university leaders, global policymakers, leaders of NGOs, economic bodies and widening access practitioners from across the world, Beth explored the tensions between education as a social good and a market driver, and looked at the role students played in liberating education across the world. 

Hello, and thank you very much for asking me to talk today. My name is Beth Button, I am the President of the National Union of Students Wales (NUS), and an elected student officer for NUS UK.

The National Union of Students UK is a confederation of over 95% of all students’ unions and students’ associations in postsecondary education in the UK. Through our 600 member unions, we represent the interests of more than seven million students. Our history and our continued hard work to be good at representing students has meant that around the UK we have a seat at the table in our institutions, in our communities and with our governments.

Whether it is on governing bodies, through democratic representation structures, through individual advocacy or through the research and student engagement work that we do, we are able to do the work of making things better for our students and holding our institutions accountable for how the decisions they make affect the current and future student body - and fundamental to this is the issue of access.

We have begun to mark out what we see as our global universalities, and how we translate those into a local context – yet to make change, we must engage critically. We have to look at the tensions, as well as at the possibilities. We have found throughout this conference that the term 'access' is understood and used in many different ways. It is easy to think that this is purely about different meanings in each national context. I don’t agree. 

Of course we have to apply lessons locally, but I believe the tensions we are teasing out are about a much grander narrative. Namely, what we believe to be the purpose of education itself.

Whether access is simply about numbers through the door of an institution, or has a political dimension related to socio-economic class and disadvantaged groups. Whether we see higher education as mostly a private good, or a public good. The tension is between whether access should be about growing neoliberal employment markets, or striving for social justice. It will come as no surprise to you that, as a representative for the National Union of Students, I passionately believe the latter.

Yet the domination of global market logic has gradually transformed the landscape of higher education, profoundly reorienting the access discourse away from social justice and towards economic imperatives. A large part of existing inequalities within countries results from unequal control over assets – we cannot have global conversations about education without recognising the global context this is situated in, where an unsustainable drive for resource and power has led to an increasingly globalised community, but growing inequality.

Despite developed and developing nations becoming richer, society has not become fairer. We live on a planet that we are borrowing from the next generation, yet whether its governments refusing to even prioritise access to clean water for the world’s poorest, or not recognising the basic rights of young black men in the richest nation in the world. There are shared, structural global inequalities that may manifest differently, but still - manifest at every local level.

One critical strategy for reducing inequalities is to ensure universal access to education. This is education as a public good. Not just because it leads to greater social cohesion, increases economic growth, reduces spend on health and crime prevention, and leads to an educated workforce - but because lack of access to education based on where someone is born, the colour of someone’s skin, the person they choose to love- is the symptom of a global crime, and nation states have a responsibility to redress rampant social injustice and redistribute wealth and power.

Education has the potential to transform lives, to break the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next - so that every person has the opportunity to get on in life, regardless of their background, their race; their sexuality, circumstance or social class. The purpose of an equitable education is to make people’s hopes for themselves and their families possible, to extend people’s horizons and equip them to be active participants in modern society, and to effect change in the world.

That’s what I mean when I say education. Yet, rather than draw attention to social inequalities, policy is increasingly focused on individual merit and aspiration. I fundamentally cannot accept that market mechanisms and competition alone will ever produce an accessible and transformatory education system. In fact, they run the risk of widening the divide.

The market narrative defines educational success as increased individual earnings, a growing national share of the global marketplace and a skilled workforce ready to serve it. These things are important for students – of course they are – but which students are benefiting? Often, we find ourselves asking the right questions for the wrong reasons. Blanket employability statistics upon graduation tells us much about students’ social capital but not much at all about their capabilities and the extent to which they are equipped to achieve their aspirations.

It is incumbent on institutions committed to widening access to work particularly hard at tackling underrepresentation in the jobs market for those from non-privileged backgrounds. While levels and patterns of employment and wages are significant in determining degrees of inequality, institutions and policy makers need to emphasise and measure not just the numbers of those in well paid employment, but the demographic breakdowns of those found in regular, good quality work that is covered by basic labour protection.

Without an adequate conception of the structural inequalities at play in a local context imbedded in institutional outreach – we are not talking about access and widening participation; we’re talking about marketing.

Well-equipped buildings and satisfied students seem to me to be measurements of adequate provision rather than transformative experiences. Meanwhile, beneath the glitz and fanfare of the student experience as a consumer product we see the very uncomfortable truth that higher education is less the engine of social mobility we would wish it be, and is instead implicated in entrenching social inequality.

Over the past five years, NUS and students’ unions, working together, have been heavily instrumental in the development of a socially just and diverse widening participation and access agenda in the United Kingdom, that hits to the real point of access – changing institutions to fit the diversity of students; not moulding students to fit narrow, elitist institutions.

Because students’ unions give students one of the most fundamental rights there is: the right to self-organise, to determine our own interests and hold our institutions to account for how they advance our society, and this right is fundamental to education access. Nowhere is the role of education – in expanding people’s horizons and opportunities, in producing critical thinkers – better demonstrated than in student organising, whether in the UK, Australia, South Africa, Austria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Romania, Estonia or indeed Malaysia – as we have seen from the students engaged in this conference.

Students involved as co-producers of their education, from working with academics on developing their curriculum and running student services, to taking empowered seats at the table within their institutions. Running summer schools, children’s universities and outreach programmes for students shut out of education due to their social capital, their race, their sexuality, gender or simply where they were born – and ensuring that when they come to take these places in postsecondary education, the cultures and structures of their institutions are significantly altered to make sure that they can survive and thrive. Students undertaking their own academic research into marginalised student groups and proposing the solutions to the most pressing problem of our current age – how to make our society more equal.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Challenging gendered patterns of participation and the lack of women in leadership positions in our universities. Creating safe spaces for black students to organise, reflect on and challenge their experiences of marginalization. Campaigning for fair and reasonable provision for disabled students. Creating LGBT communities where students can become the person they want to be and not what society says they should be. All of this not only democratises education – it serves to develop the political capital of marginalised student groups so that when they leave education, they can stand up and be counted – and it educates students about their social responsibilities in the wider world and their future careers. This is integral to access.

I hope this makes it clear that for NUS, partnership isn’t just about students having a nice time. It’s about social justice. It’s about building a more democratic society and how students’ voices, ideas, priorities and concerns are represented in the ongoing process of determining higher education futures.

Let me be clear. This is not about positional power. It is not about creating a token student role, or allowing one student to sit at a table and calling this student engagement. This is about self-organising; allowing students the tools, the spaces and the influence to collectively shape their education in the local context - in partnership with academics and staff, and subsequently shape the wider world. Students must be part of this process from the very beginning. Not presented a framework designed by institutions and recognised leaders, and asked whether they like it or not upon its completion. Students must be integrated throughout.

How depressing, to think that the student voice should be confined to raising issues, complaining, and making demands. Students have so much more to offer their institutions than a to-do list. Students should be seen as knowledgeable, powerful and respected stakeholders in their educational experience. Present in discussions, valued for their input and as frequently found on panel discussions, round tables and plenary stages as academics, policy makers and political leaders. There is a lesson to be learnt here.

So, I present this as a challenge to you when you return to your institutions and your organisations – to reflect critically on what it means to engage students in their education. Because students want to work in partnership with you on these issues, to take a role in creating an authentic, inclusive student experience, an experience that fosters learning, connectedness and positive social change. But that requires academic leaders to make space for them, to actively listen to their ideas and suggestions; to change the way power operates in these spaces. To take the time and provide the tools that empower students to lead on access and widening participation. So that students are no longer just subjects of your research, but actively leading the way.

So that when 2017 comes around, you aren’t only bringing students from your institution with you to Brazil, but they have been developing the agenda at a local level, active in making social change, and leading the conversations on a global stage. And if we do not act on that potential we are in danger of reducing the educational purpose of higher education to that of provision of an adequate service.

In ensuring that our student bodies represent society at large, locally and globally, we must guarantee that we are constantly reflecting critically on our practice and cultures as educators, as policy makers and indeed as students ourselves. When you, as practitioners and academics ask this fundamental question about how we turn this global thinking into local action, students are the answer.




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