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The uneasy place of equity in higher education: tracing its (in)significance in academic promotions


Throughout the West, efforts to achieve equity for students in higher education have met with mixed success. Much extant literature focuses on the position and perspectives of students in relation to this wicked problem: our research turns the spotlight onto the role of academic staff. In an effort to understand equity’s mixed fortunes more forensically, this article offers a case study from a research-intensive university in Aotearoa New Zealand. The study outlines the current context of ideas about equity in national government and institutional policies, then traces the life of those ideas inside one particular yet ubiquitous institutional process: the promotion of academic staff. Promotion is a potent moment of academic subject formation where, in order to participate, individuals must account for themselves as promotion-worthy through presenting a comprehensive dossier in response to a detailed set of norms. Our research explores the extent to which institutional promotion processes suggest the necessity of an “equity-active academic subject” as well as the kinds of equity-active subjects who emerge. Our analysis of institutional documents and interviews with colleagues involved in promotion decision-making processes suggests that, despite an inevitable institutional rhetoric of commitment to equity, the concept occupies an uneasy, even risky, place in the academic promotion process, and that responsibility for equity remains largely stuck to equity bodies. This small study contributes to a deeper understanding of the obstacles—contradictions even—equity faces within university culture.

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  1. See, for example, Dougherty and Callender’s (2017) report on English and American higher education access and completion policy regimes.

  2. Academic staff are called “faculty” in some, especially North American, jurisdictions.

  3. Equity and equality are often associated, even interchanged, but the former is more suggestive of equal outcomes and the latter (older term) of equal treatment. Equity adds “a subjective moral or ethical judgement that might bypass the letter of the law in the interest of the spirit of the law” (Espinoza 2010 p. 129)—in other words, equity might require unequal treatment in order to effect equal outcomes.

  4. Another profoundly challenging issue is that of “epistemological equity” (Gale 2014, p. 15, citing Dei 2010): the debate over curriculum transformation and/or decolonisation is further aspect of the broader unsettled space of equity but is beyond the scope of this article.

  5. The NZ tertiary sector comprises public universities, polytechnics, wānanga (Māori universities), and privately-owned institutions.

  6. In late 2017, NZ elected a centre-left government. Changes to tertiary sector policy have been signalled with one change already implemented: from the beginning of the 2018 academic year, students are not charged tuition fees for their first year of tertiary study. For now, however, the Strategy described above is still in effect and can be found at

  7. Māori are the indigenous people of NZ, while the term Pasifika (or, in the institutional policies, “Pacific”) refers to indigenous peoples of diverse Pacific nations who have settled in NZ largely since the middle of the twentieth century. These indigenous and ethnic emphases differ from some other Anglophone countries. For example, while Australian policy documents (e.g. the 2008 Bradley Review) refer to indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those with low socio-economic status or who are regional or remote are also mentioned. In another example, England gives prominence to low socio-economic groups as well as those who are Black and Minority Ethic (BME) (Green Paper 2015). Despite the varying emphases given to indigenous/ethnic identities in different countries, all these groups have, in common, their relative economic disadvantage.

  8. Māori are recognised not only as an equity group but also as partners to the Treaty of Waitangi, the treaty that enabled British settlement of NZ in the nineteenth century. While reference to the Treaty is enshrined in public institutions and policies, the Treaty’s status and scope is subject to ongoing contestation within NZ politics and society. In the Strategy, and in recognition of Treaty obligations, responsibilities are given to tertiary institutions for supporting the development of Māori language and tikanga Māori (cultural practices) and, at higher levels, for fostering development of mātauranga Māori (knowledge from the Māori world) that will “provide greater opportunities for Māori to achieve in research and development, building from their unique cultural strengths” (p. 13).

  9. This list is not dissimilar to that featuring in the Australian government’s 1990 policy A Chance for All, which identified six target groups on the basis of under-representation: people from low socio-economic backgrounds, Indigenous Australians, people from regional and remote areas, those with disabilities, from non-English speaking backgrounds, and women in non-traditional areas (Gale 2014, p. 12).

  10. See the Commission’s “equity Funding” webpage accessed 28 March, 2018.

  11. We analyse the versions of these documents current at the time of our interviews: all were publicly available on the university’s website in the Policy Hub: Independent communication with institutional leaders in the domain of equity confirmed our selection of documents as those most relevant to academic promotion processes.

  12. See footnote 4.

  13. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex.

  14. Two other objectives address equity for staff, which is not our concern here.

  15. We have written other articles pursuing this line of enquiry—see, for example Barrow and Grant (2016).

  16. Guidelines for promotion to the ultimate role of Professor are addressed in a separate document.

  17. In the case university, the term faculty refers to its largest academic units, referred to here as Faculty. Occasionally, the North American meaning of faculty as academic staff occurs in our data—in which case, we use the lowercase version.

  18. The Director’s agenda is different to ours in that their role is to observe—and potentially comment upon—equitableness in decisions for the applicant in relation to employment equity rather than student equity as an aspect of an applicant’s academic practice. Nevertheless, the Director is privy to a wide range of promotion conversations and decisions and alert to matters of equity more generally.

  19. We have written elsewhere about the way in which “university evaluation criteria”—otherwise known as student evaluations of teaching—produce “data that [are] both totalising (describing institutional expectations and norms) and individualising (inciting teachers to compare themselves and their teaching to these expectations and norms)” (Barrow and Grant 2016, p. 599).

  20. A variation on this term—“minority taxation”—appears in work by Rodriguez and colleagues, who argue is describes “the burden of extra responsibilities placed on minority faculty in the name of diversity. This tax is in reality very complex, and … is better described as [a] … responsibility disparity” (2015, p. 1).


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Thanks to Dr. Frances Kelly for assistance with early data analysis; to Dr. Linlin Xu for research assistance in the final stages; to the WUN project, “Challenges of access and equity: The higher education curriculum answers back,” led by Dr. Tai Peseta (then at the University of Sydney); to the anonymous peer reviewers for their helpful comments.


This study is funded by the WUN Research Development Fund and University of Auckland Faculty Research Development Fund.

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Correspondence to Mark Barrow.

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Barrow, M., Grant, B. The uneasy place of equity in higher education: tracing its (in)significance in academic promotions. High Educ 78, 133–147 (2019).

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  • Academics
  • Faculty
  • Policy analysis
  • Promotion
  • Student equity
  • Tenure