What is ‘inclusive education’ at a selective, research-intensive university? By Nicola Gale and Matthew Francis

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While universities play a variety of important social and economic roles, one of the most important is helping young people fulfil their intellectual potential and thereby achieve their ambitions. Yet, although universities have a clear duty to promote the participation of students from all backgrounds, students from some backgrounds remain under-represented across higher education, while for others there remain stubborn attainment gaps. There has been significant progress on both of these issues across the last decade, but figures from the Equality Challenge Unit and HESA indicate that there is still considerable work to be done.

Although we would all agree that universities have an ethical duty to broaden and deepen participation in higher education for students from a diverse range of backgrounds, some might ask how far the current regulatory environment supports that duty. The appointment, however brief, of Toby Young to the board of the new Office for Students (OfS) – the successor to HEFCE and the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) – has once again raised questions about the Government’s commitment to inclusion in higher education, given Young’s widely-publicised personal views.Nonetheless, the broader political and regulatory landscape is focussed on both widening participation for students from a range of backgrounds and ensuring they can succeed once admitted. In the Teaching Excellence Framework, for example, several of the benchmarked measures used to assess universities are measures of the satisfaction and success of students with a range of characteristics, including those who have too often felt excluded from or disadvantaged within higher education. The annual Access Agreements required by OFFA also require universities to set out how they ‘will sustain or improve access, student success and progression among people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups’. The ongoing changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) also impose a greater duty on universities to fulfil the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty and the Equality Act (2010).

Without exception, universities are keen to ensure that they admit those students who can take full advantage of the education on offer. Yet, we know that some groups in society are underrepresented in the most selective universities and even for those who do make it, there are those persistent attainment gaps. This is a waste of talent and no university is happy with it.

So, the key questions are: What more can we do to address the issue? What does an ‘inclusive’ education look like in a research-intensive university and – more specifically – what should it look like at the University of Birmingham?

While there are many potential answers to those questions, one possible response is to consider what we might learn from the  social model of disability and how that could be relevant for other dimensions of inequality. Traditional approaches to disability view disability as the product of the characteristics of the individual and seek to help individuals to overcome particular obstacles. In contrast, the social model understands disability as a product of the way in which society is organised and emphasises the removal of barriers to participation.

From this perspective, the key to developing a genuinely inclusive university education is to focus on the removal of barriers to participation and attainment for all students. Rather than seeking to compensate for, or overcome, specific barriers to participation for individual students, we should develop an approach which anticipates the needs of a diverse range of students and removes barriers to participation before those students have even set foot on our physical or digital campus.  In so doing, we would be embedding inclusion into every aspect of university life.

Nice words. But, what does that look like in practice? We all agree with the ambition but we don’t always know what to do to achieve it or how to begin…and that is why we have launched this phase of the Big Conversation. We will continue to interrogate our data but we also need to ask ourselves and our students some questions, devise and translate a new University of Birmingham ‘Inclusive Education’ model, consider impacts on our curriculum and teaching, and share ideas and good practice.

Blogs and Comments are welcomed from all staff and students, and from relevant external experts and agencies who can contribute additional insights. The Conversation will run until the end of March 2018, and we will summarise the outcomes and actions and revisit the issue at our HEFi conference on the 29th June.

Nicola Gale and Matthew Francis


6 thoughts on “What is ‘inclusive education’ at a selective, research-intensive university? By Nicola Gale and Matthew Francis”

  1. Those disadvantaged members of society who lack self belief, and have nobody to encourage them, are the ones who tend to miss out. The competitive atmosphere of undergraduate life is not for everyone. Find other ways outside research elite universities to offer Inclusive learning. This means treating all achievements, whether in the workplace, community or academic establishments, on an equitable basis. Research lead universities are excellent for just that, but we also need innovative development both in public and private sectors, working in seamless projects. New methods may bring unexpected benefits.

  2. I’m interested in thoughts about who we defined as ‘disadvantaged’ when it comes to discussions of inclusiveness and diversity.Normally, I think of social or economic background in defining this, and try to define answers along the lines of widening participation.

    However, attendance at a recent conference has got me thinking about international students as also ‘disadvantaged’ in their own way: that is, they might not be economically disadvantaged (although some are and only have access to an overseas education via scholarships from their governments or other bodies) but from a social life, or language perspective, they can be seen from certain angles as being disadvantaged.

    I’d be interested in hearing colleagues’ thoughts on this – I admit its a new perspective I haven’t thought of before myself prior to this.

    1. I’d be wary of conflating the idea of “different” with “disadvantaged”. I also don’t think it’s helpful to be too loose with the label of “disadvantaged”.

      An overseas student may have difficulties with a second language, but what of a shy or anxious native speaking student? Would they be disadvantaged too? From a certain angle, anyone can be seen as being disadvantaged. The key is that it is a legitimate and meaningful disadvantage.

      Of course, studying in a second language is going to be more difficult, but that’s the source of the prestige associated with obtaining the degree. To label the student “disadvantaged” would be to rob the student of that achievement, and to undermine the integrity of the assessment process.

      That’s not to say that international students don’t have difficulties, and shouldn’t be given tailored support. But I think this is something the university already does.

  3. @idlan we could look at ‘disadvantaged’ using Bourdieu’s three forms of capital – social, cultural and economic. We may exclude many on the basis of these without even knowing.

    Language is really important and considering the terms we use often without thinking could make a big difference. For example, this blog states in the very first line that university is for young people. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional but could exclude mature students.

    On the subject of a research-intensive university we can use our different backgrounds and experiences to look at subjects from different perspectives rather than being passive receivers of knowledge.

  4. In interview for a place on the Bachelor or Masters in Nursing we ask students about their thoughts on how we can provide equitable care for our diverse population. Almost all of them focus on religious differences and how they can be accommodated. They also state that chose UoB for their studies because the health care system serves a multicultural population. We believe, and enshrine in our education strategy, that we need to prepare our students to be knowledgeable about diversity in its broader sense, and for them to be able to challenge inequality and promote equity. It is interesting therefore that they don’t mix together in the classroom, tending to form social groups of people who look (and think) like themselves. We see a difference in attainment between people who arrive via different routes of entry and according to ethnicity. We feel that there are huge advantages to all students by getting to know each other better, and by challenging ‘otherness’ and therefore try to encourage mixing in small group sessions but the students (albeit passively) resist this, and every smaller division of the larger cohort persists in an ethnic divide unless we actively and persistently orchestrate it otherwise.

  5. A few years ago, the University of Worcester carried out an appreciative inquiry study into how students perceived inclusivity (Kadi-Hanifi et al., 2014). The study involved student researchers asking students to give examples of where they already felt included, and feeding those scenarios back to the academic staff in an away-day. The staff used the collated ideas from students to create their own personal “aspiration” lists of things they would change in their teaching. This was a good, inclusive model of how to increase inclusivity, and was reported to be a positive experience for staff and students alike, with positive outcomes.

    Kadi-Hanifi,K., Dagman, O., Peters, J., Snell, E., Tutton, C. & Wright, T. (2014) Engaging students and staff with educational development through appreciative inquiry, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 51:6, pp.584-594. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2013.796719

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