Student access, equity, and diversity in higher education Chapter uri icon

Book Title

  • Oxford Bibliographies in Education


  • 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.

publication date

  • 2019