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.