How can we make higher education more inclusive?

It’s a long post, but I could really do with your thoughts!

Suppose a university or college wanted to review the inclusivity of the curriculum.  Not recruitment, or admissions, or student support, but the core learning, teaching and assessment activities.  What might that mean? And how should it be presented to busy academics? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, but it’s easy to get bogged down in bureaucratic language, so I wanted to see if I could articulate some basic claims that might be behind such an initiative.  My starting point is the thought that

  • although there are many similarities among students and the people teaching them, there are also many differences;
  • some of these differences are culturally and politically significant in ways which have affected people’s access to, and success within, higher education;
  • these inequalities are not inevitable – they are, in part, the result of barriers created by practices and policies in learning, teaching and assessment;
  • we should be working to identify and remove such barriers.

Given this starting point, I take the ‘inclusivity’ of the curriculum to be the extent to which it draws in a wide range of people and enables them to learn to the best of their ability.  So I’m thinking about members of all kinds of groups traditionally underserved by higher education.  The kinds of barriers which would make a curriculum less inclusive, then, might include

  • drawing syllabus content throughout a degree programme from a narrow understanding of the subject or discipline, to the exclusion of critical or marginalised perspectives (see Jill Gordon’s paper What Can White Faculty Do – sadly not available for free unless you have access via an institutional library);
  • using ‘high stakes’ delivery or assessment, which only gives students one opportunity to participate or to demonstrate their achievement and leaves no room for them to learn from mistakes;
  • relying heavily on a single method of delivery (for instance, the traditional lecture) or a single method of assessment (for instance, the traditional written exam) (see Making your teaching inclusive);
  • assuming that students already understand the cultures and norms of higher education in your country – or of specific disciplines – and so failing to make expectations clear;
  • using illustrations, examples and language which reinforce stereotypes or convey the message that some ways of being are ‘normal’ and others ‘abnormal’;
  • stereotyping students from particular groups and (even unwittingly) treating them differently as a result (see our other posts on implicit bias and the American Psychological Association on racism and psychology) ;
  • only offering opportunities for further research or study at times which are inaccessible for students with caring commitments or who need to earn money alongside their studies;
  • allowing offensive behaviour or speech to go unchallenged in a way which makes people feel humiliated, excluded or silenced.

Are there other reasons to pursue this work – or reasons not to pursue it?  Are there other barriers that seem obvious to you?  What kinds of evidence would help establish the nature of the barriers?  Or is this the wrong way to think about it?

If you work in higher education, how could you raise these issues with colleagues?  And how do you think the conversations would go?

9 thoughts on “How can we make higher education more inclusive?

  1. The politics of your final point – allowing offensive behaviour or speech to go unchallenged in a way which makes people feel humiliated, excluded or silenced – are the most interesting to me. The problem is where there is either a majority system or a set of cultural practices (patriarchy, for example) which make it difficult to challenge.

  2. I think the main difficulty with creating this type of change is that most people in those positions (though this is slowly changing) are often white middle class heterosexual men who really believe they have no bias. I think it’s easier to broach the subject with individuals who have a working understanding of “privilege”. This often comes from having an experience where they have have been on the other side of it.

    It is very difficult for people to acknowledge that they are doing things that may be implicitly racist, classist, sexist, etc. They don’t want to feel they are “bad person” and have the view only “bad people” are racists (or whatever-ists).

    in the long term dream of an enlightened world, We need to raise awareness that these implicit “isms” are things that everyone has and needs to be working towards overcoming daily. However in the short term that ends up being analogous to a “trickle down” approach and I don’t think it is going to happen without some prodding.

    In the short term I am hoping to get a PhD which looks at Mathematics curriculum and how that socializes young people in terms of gender. but that is one small part of subject. and I’m also hoping to looking at curriculum of primary students as I think that is where we have the most chance of counteracting social constructs since the won’t have set in yet.

    So… no I don’t have any solutions.. but these are my rambling thoughts.

  3. I absolutely agree that change which requires individuals to acknowledge their own bias, or to oppose widespread cultural practices, is enormously difficult to promote. nakedthoughts, your PhD topic sounds like it’ll be a great contribution to that.

    But are there any changes worth making which don’t depend on transforming individuals? ones which a department or an institution can nudge forward?

  4. John A, if you haven’t noticed it, you might look at our closely related discussion about an example in a law class; it’s here.

  5. That’s an excellent tactic, but because it was in the comments it didn’t turn up on my RSS feed… Perhaps you could link to it in a forthcoming article so others can note it.

  6. I tend to think the best place to start is with the very striking data on implicit bias and stereotype threat. It’s surprising enough and intrinsically interesting enough that people can’t really help taking an interest. My hope is that if we get enough people aware of this we can start to get people thinking about howe to fix things. But so far it’s only a hope… I mean, it works well with my colleagues, but they’re all pretty much on board already.

  7. The issue with my subject is, of course, it is a long term solution. what about people who are trying to gain access currently to the system?

    It just feels like holding the hands of people blind to their biases so they can feel good about themselves before they can improve is very much a “trickle down” approach which has been oh-so-effective in economics. (eyeroll.) and waiting around for someone to become “enlightened” isn’t exactly a solution that lends itself to speedy change either.

    I was traveling in NZ and I met two Californian white heterosexual men who didn’t believe racism was an issue in CA because they were so sure they weren’t racist, and to acknowledge racism would mean they noticed the color of a person’s skin and then they would be racist. Academics they were not, but I don’t think it was the lack of higher education that caused them to hold on so tightly to the view that they were not perpetrators of the dreaded “privilege.”

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