Governing Education In Unequal Societies, Or Why Equity Is Not A Solution To Inequality But Still Matters

Year: 2015

Author: Savage, Glenn, Sellar, Samantha

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The purpose of this paper is to examine the ways ‘equity’ is rationalised and enacted in education policy and research. We begin by proposing a conceptual framework for understanding equity that departs considerably from dominant framings in policy studies. This framework draws upon Agamben’s notion of ‘apparatus’ and theories of ‘governmentality’ as a means for understanding ‘what equity does’ in policy and research. We argue that to understand how equity works, it is useful to put aside normative assumptions about justice. While de-coupling equity from justice appears a radical move, it gives us a different perspective on the machinations of equity by freeing us from principled positions concerning what equity should be ‘ideally’. This allows us see how equity operates as a form of governmentality and how we might work within this framing rather than one linked to justice. We argue that the common view of equity as a weakened version of earlier social justice values is a trap, because it prevents robust critique of the term and often condemns pragmatic engagements with beneficial aspects of equity agendas.
The paper analyses Australian and international schooling policies. We begin by arguing that equity in education is now dominated by a ‘neo-social’ political rationality. This neo-social framing is part of a broader economization of morality that serves to ‘untether’ equity from moral ideals and re-articulate it as an economic instrument compatible with advanced capitalist governance. Building on this, we provide an illustration of neo-social equity in practice, analysing how equity has evolved as ‘a statistical correlation’ between student background and performance, made possible through large-scale data infrastructures and testing programmes. This framing of equity now provides the dominant basis for understanding equity in schooling and education research. The primary function of this form of equity is to ‘make legible’ schooling systems and the productive capacities of individuals. The purpose of equity, therefore, is not to make school systems fair or equal, but to survey and manage the reproduction of inequalities within determined levels of acceptability. In summary, we argue that rather than seeing equity as a force of justice, it is more generative to understand it as a form of governmentality, central to the governance of unequal societies. Equity offers no solutions to inequality, but better alternatives are a matter of pragmatic experimentation to find a way out of this equity trap.