From Ghent to Worcester: A pathway for universal inclusion

Dr Sean Bracken, co-Learning and Teaching Lead, Institute of Education

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Patrick Clarke (Specialist Learning Support Service Mnager at Student Services at the University of Worcester) and Dr. Helen Mongan-Ralis (University of Minnesota Duluth) whose erudite discussions and generosity of intellectual spirit have revealed the potentials of Universal Design for Learning.

Two years ago here at the University of Worcester, at one of a series of ‘food for thought’ seminars organised to raise awareness about staff and student intercultural and transnational experiences, a colleague shared her reflections about being ‘othered’ and estranged both within and outside of the university. Her stories have remained with me as a testimony for the need to counter the sometimes overt, but perhaps more frequently unconscious, influences of racial and cultural bias that inform pedagogical, social and cultural practices within and beyond our University.

Some might observe that the sharing of one academic’s experiences is anecdotal and unreliable. However, as a lecturer engaging first year undergraduate students in searching conversations about identity and inclusion in the educational context, time and again students have also shared personal experiences of being harassed and abused because of their ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and/or their religious beliefs. Make no mistake about it – this also impacts on students’ learning outcomes. The lived experiences of inequalities that students encounter are clearly reflected in the data associated with students’ achievements.

Students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are not achieving to the same extent as White students. In many cases, this is despite their arriving at the University from positions of equitable achievement and academic strength. Typical analyses of this situation generally tend to reflect a desire to explain away rather than tackle such inequalities.

It is frequently argued that, firstly the data is not that reliable because there are such small percentages of students involved and secondly, it is suggested that this situation merely mirrors a similar national state of affairs. But as educators, these covering explanations should be troubling and disquieting. Searching questions ought to be posed as to how structural and systematic biases and inequalities might be tackled rather than merely explained away enabling the status quo to continue being so.

At first, such systematic challenges may seem intractable. Individuals or small groups of educators may wish to make a positive difference but become overwhelmed by the apparently deep-seated nature of social inequalities. If social inertia is to be overcome, there is a need to be mindful of the bigger picture while taking forward individual initiatives.

Through interrogating policy developments, reflecting on our learning and teaching processes, and challenging unjust social practices, the tendencies towards exclusion and power exclusivity are highlighted and can be countered. Ultimately, this should lead to a roll back of the ‘business as usual’ so there is growing capacity to tackle replications of social, cultural ethnic or value based biases that compound inequalities. The capacity to effect more sustainable change arises particularly where individual initiatives are seen to contribute to a wider culture of what I would like to call ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’.

University teachers, students and senior leaders may question the forms and processes that would enable such systematic changes to be put into place. Whatever their foundations, these forms and processes should facilitate the stable progressive building of initiatives that are increasingly realistic and sustainable. Resultant emerging actions should be able to demonstrate impact in terms of changed experiences and outcomes for marginalised students.

The good news is that such blueprints for organisational transformation already exist. We can draw on learning shared by those that have faced similar challenges previously and who have developed models and processes enabling ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’ to become the bedrock for initiatives that aim to impact systematically on current values and practices.

Recently, I attended a conference at Howest University in Ghent that showcased how European higher educational providers have adopted and adapted an approach known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a model to make rapid systematic progress towards ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’.

Two particular case studies of whole organisational change were particularly impressive, those of the host University of Howest and of the prestigious McGill University in Canada. In the first instance, Howest adopted a concerted multi-layered approach involving all key stakeholders in the change process. This initiative resulted in demonstrable changes in the levels of retention and engagement of students who were identified as being ‘disadvantaged’. At McGill, the primary focus was upon up-skilling of teaching staff through targeted professional development – sustained collegiate capacity building was seen as crucial for success.

As identified in the publication by Burgstahler and Coy (2008), at its most basic universal design includes consideration of the following dimensions:

  1. Class climate – Ensure to engender a culture of respect for diversity and inclusiveness and insist upon high expectations for all students, this might also involve checking for personal bias through systematic self-reflection and awareness;
  2. Interaction – Promote regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants;
  3. Physical environments and products – Enable participation by all students by interrogating whether the physical facilities, learning activities, pedagogical materials, and equipment are accessible to all students and reflective of their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds;
  4. Delivery methods – Encourage student engagement by using multiple, accessible instructional methods accessible to all learners, for example this might involve the use of lecture capture to enable working students to access learning if the timetables clash with student imperatives to earn additional finances;
  5. Information resources and technology -Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students, there should be consistency of availability in advance of and following taught sessions;
  6. Feedback and feed forward – Provide multiple modes and opportunities for feedback and feed forward,
  7. AssessmentRegularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and use data to adjust instruction accordingly ensure that students and professionals alike become increasingly ‘assessment literate’ through peer interactions, dialogue with lecturers and through systems such as personal academic tutoring;
  8. Accommodation – Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

At a university level, new learning and teaching initiatives should ensure that these aspects of inclusivity form the foundation for collaborative research projects. These have the very real potential to impact upon two core elements of lived experiences within the university and beyond. These are the social and cultural expressions of student and staff identities and, very importantly, their interrelationships with learning outcomes and professional progression (Burgstahler, 2013).

However, the constructive potential inherent in university initiatives should not be limited to what happens on campus. There is a social imperative to influence ways of thinking and being in wider society. When we dream big we have the capacity to tackle unjust systematic beliefs and practices on a grander scale. For example, through Project Zero, the Government of Norway has shared its aspiration to provide for a whole country that is ‘universal designed’ by 2025. It aims to do so by facilitating social engagement by all and by countering discrimination, accordingly:

The Ministry of Children and Equality is responsible for promoting equality and preventing discrimination on the basis of gender, age, sexual orientation, skin colour, ethnicity, religion or disability. Through this action plan for universal design and increased accessibility, the government is bringing both the equality policy and sustainability policy an important step further. (Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality, 2009: 7).

If a country is working towards the realisation of such an ambitious aspiration, why shouldn’t it be achieved within a university? As exemplified in the collaborative and universal designed nature of the HIVE , the only library in the UK that is at once accessible by the wider public and tailored to meet the needs of university students, the University of Worcester is well placed to provide for a similar ambitious programme of university universal design.

Such an initiative should be developed with the intention of making an impact on wider ways of thinking, doing and being so that universal access and experiences become more than university idylls. Using its good offices, the University has scope to promote this concept of equity, inclusivity and universality within the City of Worcester and wider to incorporate the County of Worcestershire.

The incidences of ‘othering’ shared by my colleague from North Africa, whose experiences I alluded to earlier, were encountered within and beyond the confines of the university. We have recently seen, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dangers arising from divisiveness and inequalities associated with race and ethnicity. More than ever, we now need to articulate a plan for ensuring that our University and our society has the vision, will and capacity to address inequities and to create greater social cohesion. The stakes are too high to merely tinker at the edges of change.

The pathways of universal design offer tangible routes for at least partial redress for social, racial, ethnic and cultural inequalities and our challenge is to avail of the opportunities provided in order to plan for, and bring to fruition, the positive changes for learning and society.

To learn more about the conference focused on UDL, please visit the conference website at:

Burgstahler, S. , & Coy, R. (Eds.). (2008) Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Boston: Harvard Education Press.

Burgstahler, S. (2013) Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from: Accessed, 9th July, 2016.

Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality (2009) Norway universally designed by 2025 The Norwegian government’s action plan for universal design and increased accessibility 2009-2013. Retrieved from: Accessed, 9th July, 2016