Conference Papers

How to promote real equality in higher education

We need to reclaim a forgotten sense of what ‘equality’ means. This is equality as the right to be the same rather than the right to be different. Equality as difference is what many students, academics and manager in higher education accept and promote (Mieschbuehler 2017, 2018). Treating people as equal to them means merely accepting and respecting differences. What was once a universal concept emphasising a common humanity has been replaced by a particular concept emphasising the respect that must be given to what are divisive elements of people’s given identities (Malik 1996; Fukuyama 2018; Mieschbuehler 2019). This is not a simple semantic change but a political change that undermines the universalising project of higher education, of the ‘university’.

The impact of this politicised, particularised view of equality is manifest throughout higher education. In policy terms it means the creation of initiatives in institutions and classrooms to celebrate and even promote diversity. In terms of assessment it is expressed in the adoption of relational comparisons of student attainment that are used that compare relative attainment levels between groups (Mieschbuehler 2018). Instead of seeing students who desire and deserve the best a university education can offer they are presented in policies and practice as being easily differentiated into racial, cultural, class or gender-based groups. As the research discussed in this talk reveals the consequences of equality as diversity are often unwelcome to students.

This divisive thinking may seem to empower various groups but it ultimately denies all students the possibility of accessing the best university education, the education that embodies what Matthew Arnold called ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (Arnold [1864] 2003: 50; Boghossian 2007). Instead education is rebuilt around fixed, particular identities (Malik 1996; Barry 2001).

Recapturing real equality means restoring the forgotten ‘absolute’ sense of human equality and defending it along with ‘absolute’ standards which offer all students the ability to reach their human potential through access to a universal liberal education.


Arnold, M. ([1864] 2003) ‘The function of criticism at the present time’, in Collini, S. (ed.) Culture and Anarchy and Other Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barry, B. (2001) Culture and Equality, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Boghossian, P. (2007) Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fukayama, F. (2018) Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, London: Profile Books Ltd.

Malik, K (1996) The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society, New York: New York University Press.

Mieschbuehler, R. (2017) Beyond ‘student experience’, in Hayes, D. (Ed.) Beyond McDonaldization: Visions of Higher Education, London and New York: Routledge.

Mieschbuehler, R. (2018) The Minoritisation of Higher Education Students: An Examination of Contemporary Policies and Practice, London and New York: Routledge.

Mieschbuehler, R. (2019) The Racialisation of Campus Relations, HEPI Occasional Paper, Oxford: HEPI. (Forthcoming)

Mieschbuehler, R. (2019) 'How to promote real equality in higher education', paper presented to The 15th Annual Conference of the British Education Studies Association (BESA), 27–28 June, viewed 02 April 2020, <>