Are diversity, equality and inclusion at the heart of the university experience? Reflecting on ECU’s research.

Dr. Sean Bracken

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At the end of last month, the Vice Chancellor launched a series of consultation seminars so that all colleagues would have an opportunity to reflect on the content and direction of the new Teaching and Learning Strategy for the University (2015-2019). In opening the discussions, Professor Green identified the need for a continuation of the historically and culturally informed values of the University, which provide a sound foundation on which to build provision for an outstanding educational experience while ensuring that all learners are included.

At around the same time as the consultations in the University of Worcester were taking place, the Equality Challenge Unit launched a new piece of research which studied the capacity of university staff throughout the UK to engage effectively with inclusion and diversity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report entitled Academic teaching staff: developing equality and diversity skills, knowledge and values’, found that a strategic focus on learning and teaching had the potential to impact positively on inclusive policies and practices. It identified that:

Where the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion were explicitly embedded into the teaching and learning strategy, both academic and institutional leads expressed a greater confidence in discussing curriculum design and the application of inclusion principles to practice (p. 4)

However, there appeared to be a gap between the incorporation of such strategic principles and an expectation that practitioners would need to evidence any form of expertise in the area. This was particularly the case when professionals were questioned about the forms of differentiation they incorporated into their courses in order to further support learning, or in order to make learning meaningful for those from cultural, ethnic or religious minorities. Most respondents indicated that there weren’t any mechanisms to provide pertinent evidence of effective practice.

So, while a strategic focus appears to work, there may be gaps when it comes to sharing sound inclusive practices during teaching and learning experiences. With the findings from this research in mind, perhaps we can now revisit our own strategic plan and interrogate its capacity to progress inclusive practice in two ways:

  • Firstly, by questioning whether and to what extent aspects of inclusion and diversity are explicitly embedded throughout the plan, and;
  • Secondly, by identifying ways in which evidence might be gathered and shared to ensure that inclusive practices are disseminated effectively and incorporated into all courses.

The report hints at some of the principles and strategies that might feasibly guide the realisation of an effective and inclusive strategic plan. The role of leadership in this process is crucial, so that,

A clear and unambiguous senior leadership stance and behaviours on equality and diversity can have a positive impact on staff confidence in engaging in equality and diversity issues (p. 20).

A consideration of partnership approaches is also critical in bringing about inclusive learning and teaching. For example, colleagues are encouraged to consider how the students’ union and course representatives can best contribute to developing understanding of equality and diversity in terms of; research, face-to-face interactions, classroom encounters with the curriculum, and in wider social situations. In this way, inclusion can be placed unambiguously at the heart of the university experience. Interestingly, making specific reference to the University of Worcester, the report identifies that there is scope to realise such practices, ‘not in a negative way, but appreciating what is being achieved’. Thus, the Appreciative Inquiry research into meeting the learning requirements of students with disabilities and learning difficulties, which was conducted in 2013-14, provides a clear example of how best to identify and share great inclusive practices.

Some of the research respondents felt that a continued focus on diversity and equality issues were a distraction and that such a focus was likely to generate even more administrative work resulting in less time for effective learning and teaching. However, in a context where there are growing expectations of staff professionalism pertaining to the UK Professional Standards Framework, it is opportune to reflect on ways in which personal and community practices might be strengthened. Perhaps more importantly, contextual demands are also likely to influence the ways in which we consider going about teaching and learning more effectively and inclusively. For example, with internationalization will come increased cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity and our curricula and practices will need to change accordingly. Moreover, increased resource constraints for those with learning disabilities and difficulties (for example it’s believed that the Disabled students’ allowance will shortly be discontinued), will intensify demands on professionals to become more inclusively aware practitioners.

Perhaps this blog forum, along with any other ideas you may wish to share, could provide some of the initiative required to address the issues above, and in the process help us work towards the attainment of the University’s first strategic goal, which is to:

To ensure all students benefit from inspirational, intellectually challenging and inclusive teaching and learning underpinned by active staff engagement with continuing professional development and first rate learning environments.

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6 thoughts on “Are diversity, equality and inclusion at the heart of the university experience? Reflecting on ECU’s research.

  1. Thank you Sean, it would be good to think about how to take forward some of these themes into practical action points next year. I know the institute international group might have some contributions for the enhancement plan next year. I think there could be the potential for a SAP project to explore the journey from a student perspective.
    Related to this I will try to embed in the TEL strategy a consideration of the impact of the VLE baseline standards from an inclusion perspective.

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  2. Dear Sean

    Thanks for including me in this

    Definitely thought provoking. Interesting how sexism on campus had recently been in the news and was referred to by the VC at last week’s University Executive (alongside of UW being involved in a women and sport initiative). I entirely agree that there are challenges in relation to internationalisation and for supporting disabled students in the ways you mention. The appreciative inquiry projects we did a few years back were really very successful in transforming mindsets and thus practice – but of course it slips. I feel we need some new University wide initiatives (as opposed to Institute initiatives on some of this, and very much looking to realise this potential in working through and with University L+T Leads. I wonder also if we can learn from the what is inspirational teaching initiative and master-classes in excellence in teaching international/disabled students – tied to UKPSF etc. WE need to find what grabs the attention and enthusiasm of colleagues!

    Regards

    Marie

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