The Imperative of Socioeconomic Diversity in Education

By Cynthia AlingWhy is the pursuit of higher education linked to one’s social class? I recently came across a reel on social media asking university students which university has the most rich students enrolled in. A few universities were mentioned. Hearing …

The Imperative of Socioeconomic Diversity in Education

By Cynthia Aling

Why is the pursuit of higher education linked to one’s social class? 

I recently came across a reel on social media asking university students which university has the most rich students enrolled in. A few universities were mentioned. Hearing the labelling of universities as exclusive to the wealthy was disheartening.

SWINSays Swinburne Sarawak

Socioeconomic Diversity: An Important Aspect of Society 

Socioeconomic diversity is an important aspect of society that can have wide-ranging effects on education, employment, economic mobility, social cohesion, and public policy.

Promoting socioeconomic diversity aligns with reducing inequality and creating a more inclusive and equitable society. In higher education,  socioeconomic diversity refers to the presence of students from a wide range of economic backgrounds, including different income levels, family financial situations, and social classes.
Tagging higher education institutions exclusive to a particular demographic reinforces existing disparities and hinders the goal of providing equal opportunities for all.

Education is a powerful tool for personal and societal development. Limiting access based on demographics can perpetuate inequality.
Besides that, labelling an institution as exclusive to a particular demographic may reinforce stereotypes and assumptions about who belongs in academia and reinforce the existing socioeconomic disparities in education. This would discourage students from lower-income backgrounds from even considering applying to these institutions and professional development.

Furthermore, it could also potentially affect the self-belief and sense of belonging of self within a group, which can contribute to the biased perceptions that certain groups are not capable or deserving of higher education, leading to discrimination.
High-ability students who qualify to attend but are in the low-income bracket may feel intimidated to attend the so-called ‘exclusive’ university; they are concerned about fitting in with the elite crowd, making them feel unwelcome or discouraged from pursuing higher education.

Consequently, it deters qualified and capable individuals from applying, limiting the diversity of the student body. When educational opportunities are perceived as only available to specific demographic groups, it can contribute to societal divisions and tensions and
the perpetuation of socioeconomic inequality 

Developing a World-Class Education System

Sarawak’s mission is to achieve a high-income developed state status by 2030. O
ne way to achieve this is through the development of well-trained and knowledgeable human capital with a world-class education system. Even though education is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government, the Sarawak government continuously strengthen its education system per the provisions of Paragraph 17 of the Inter-Governmental Committee Report (IGC). This provision gives Sarawak the authority to determine the policy of its education system.

This effort aimed for the state government to provide an alternative avenue to attain education for Sarawakians, complementing the federal education system, so that they can make their mark on the world stage while producing quality human resources that Sarawak needs for its development and progress.

The Sarawak government’s determination to produce world-class capital could be seen from the proposed establishment of five international schools using the Cambridge syllabus. It shows the determination and commitment of the Sarawak government in creating an inclusive society for the betterment of Sarawak and Sarawakians. 

When education is accessible to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic background, it can play a significant role in narrowing the gap between the wealthy and the less privileged. By enabling upward mobility, the government is sowing the seeds for a fairer and more equitable Sarawak, where opportunities are not limited by economic constraints, empowering education in the state.

All these ensure that talent, rather than financial capacity, becomes the primary determinant of success.
The various efforts carried out by the state government and Yayasan Sarawak signify the government’s recognition of the transformative power of education and its commitment to creating an inclusive society. Bursaries and scholarships that help offset tuition costs are a way to help ensure that students of ability but without financial means can access the benefits of state-owned higher institutions. Eliminating the burden of paying fees indirectly paves the way for a highly skilled and educated workforce.

Making Education Affordable to Everyone 

The Sarawak Education, Innovation and Talent Development Minister, Dato Seri Roland Sagah Wee Inn, recently reported that the enrollment of students in state-owned universities shows a significant increase ranging from 60% to 300%.

One of the key contributors to the increase in student enrolment is due to the affordable free structure introduced by Yayasan Sarawak and the respective state-owned universities. This has made higher education more affordable for students from different income backgrounds.

The free tertiary education policy announced by Sarawak Premier is an applaudable move to allow students from low-income or rural backgrounds the opportunity to benefit from free education. Based on the statement by the State Deputy Education, Innovation and Talent Development Minister, Datuk Dr Annuar Rapaee, 25,000 Sarawakian students are expected to benefit from the free tertiary level education policy that will be implemented in the state starting in 2026.

This will close the gap of socioeconomic inequality in higher education. Free education will help to reduce socioeconomic inequality by removing financial barriers to entry, as oftentimes, high tuition fees are the main element that affects students’ continuation into tertiary education. In addition, it also ensures that students from all socioeconomic backgrounds have equal access to educational opportunities, allowing them to pursue their academic and career goals based on merit rather than financial capacity. This helps to ensure that education is a tool for empowerment and social mobility, rather than a source of further division.

In conclusion, promoting socioeconomic diversity within higher education is essential for addressing systemic inequities in access to educational opportunities. Socioeconomic integration in higher education is not just a noble goal; it has the potential to enrich the experiences of all students by fostering campus diversity.

Higher education should become more economically diverse without becoming less academically exclusive. Education should be accessible to a wide range of students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, to empower them with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities necessary to improve their economic well-being and overall quality of life. An educated workforce is vital for driving economic development, human capital growth, and fostering innovation.