Inclusive praxis, the university moral imperative of our time

Dr Seán Bracken, Institute of Education writes:

It is conference season once again in the UK and this provides a welcome opportunity to recharge the intellectual batteries and to garner new ideas for the future of learning, teaching and assessment. In an increasingly competitive and individualised environment, the past week (w/c 26 June 2017) has been one exemplified by all that is good in the sector, including generosity of collegiate learning and a willingness to provide insights to what works in differing universities across the country.

Setting a roadmap for inclusion in Scotland

Towards the latter part of the week, I attended a conference hosted by Higher Education Teaching and Learning (HETL), an international organisation that facilitates cross-global learning in Higher Education. This year, the overarching theme focused on developing and embedding inclusivity within learning and teaching. The conference took place in Scotland, a country which I learned has hugely ambitious plans for the future for inclusivity in HE; these plans are single mindedly focused on enhancing university opportunities for all young people, especially those who have been disadvantaged for one reason or another. 

The keynote speaker was Dame Ruth Silver who chaired the select commission responsible for developing the inspirational national plans reflected in the final report entitled ‘A Blueprint for Fairness’. To the fore, the report articulates an impassioned imperative for immediate action, identifying that:

Inequality in higher education is unfair, damaging and unsustainable. There is therefore an undeniable case for change: Scotland has a moral, social and economic duty to achieve equal access (p. 9).

Having clearly shared a national vision for promoting access and enhanced outcomes for those who have been disadvantaged within wider society, the report identifies a roadmap for how this will be achieved, stating that:

It is also time to rebalance the focus from the perceived deficit in the individual to what more the system can do to support disadvantaged learners to succeed….. A systemic approach is therefore critical to drive progress (p. 10).

Valuing diversity in inclusive learning and teaching

It is heartening to see that a vision for inclusive practice can be so clearly identified at a national level and, to some extent, the need for a ‘bigger picture’ approach is also reflected within the English HE context. In January 2017, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a report entitled ‘Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a route to Excellence’. The report also acts as a clarion call for collaborative national action and the foreword, written by Professor Geoff Layer, hints at how this might be realised:

Central to this approach is the universal adoption of inclusive teaching and practice. This recognises and values the diversity of the student body and works with them to enhance and optimise the learning experience for all (DfE, 2017: 3).

RAISE special interest group: progressing the inclusion agenda

Earlier last week, at a RAISE inclusivity special interest group, hosted by the University of Worcester and attended by colleagues from throughout the United Kingdom, both Professor Layer and Paddy Turner from NAPD explored the implications of the report for universities seeking to transform their inclusive policies and practices.

In the first instance, they shared that inclusivity should be clearly positioned within the organisational spotlight for action. Through round table discussions participants at the event teased out how this might be achieved. Some of the key findings from these discussions are shared below.

Colleagues identified that in order to progress an inclusive agenda, there needs to be a clear understanding about the nature of inclusion and how this feeds into an organisational vision. Inclusive practice is sometimes perceived purely in terms of disability, but issues for practice, resource use, culture change and strategy development are significantly broader – encompassing all attributes of marginalisation and how inequality of representation and educational experience impacts upon students’ learning outcomes. Institutional understanding needs to develop in this respect. However, in the first instance, disability can act as ‘a spark plug’ to ignite collegial discussions and to prompt understandings about the broader perspectives of inclusion within HE.

A whole institutional approach

Further discussions revealed that conditions for developing inclusive praxis would be strengthened significantly by moving beyond individual pockets of isolated innovation and towards adoption of an overt, systematic, whole organisational approach. For this to occur, we need to develop dynamic, but clearly delineated, communities of practice across all professionals within the University.

Depending upon specific task orientations, these communities might include (among others) interested agents from; the student body, library information services, student services, facilities, lecturing staff and those concerned with learning technologies so that a comprehensive and systematic approach can be adopted. This involves shifting the boundaries beyond mere representation committees towards the development of action-oriented collaborative professionals working in tandem with students. Such groups should intentionally involve those staff and students who have traditionally been under represented, so that attributes of institutional unconscious bias might be constructively challenged.

Participants at the RAISE event highlighted the urgent requirement for universities to adopt a leadership role for the greater good of society by promoting inclusion and tolerance.  In these troubled times, through careful planning and action, the wider HE sector and individual universities within the sector, have significant potential to posit core democratic principles that value diversity at the heart of education and learning. Realising inclusive excellence is a complex but purposeful process requiring a sustained and focused leadership commitment to diversity and inclusivity. This form of systematic and cultural change requires a commitment to providing requisite human and capital resources.

Disability as a normal part of diversity

Ultimately, as shared by colleagues at both of the events I attended over the past week, this is nothing short of the democratic imperative of our time. However, it is important to ensure that this vision does not only reside with academics inhabiting ivory towers; it must also resonate with students whose future educational experiences and life chances depend upon our actions. So, I’ll leave the concluding words with a student within the (UW) Institute of Education who shared a personal reaction having read the DfE report some months ago:

As a dyslexic/dyspraxic student myself (which I would consider is minor to most other disabilities), I want to just add that I am over the moon that so much consideration is taken into account where disabled students are concerned. I think it is very important that a disabled individual is provided with an environment that develops a mentality of “disability as a normal part of diversity and views it as a matter of pride and not personal tragedy.” (DfE 2017: 12) It is fantastic that the university would consider adapting its structures and budget to be channelled towards helping students who are disadvantaged, giving them the same opportunity as non-disabled students and including them in the progression of the university as a whole.

As policy makers and practitioners, we have a collective opportunity and responsibility to make this vision a reality for all students, and our time for doing so is now.

July 2017.



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