The moment I’m writing this blog, I attend the yearly conference of the European Access Network at Artevelde University of Applied Sciences in Ghent (Belgium). The conference theme is Drivers for Change in diversity, equity and inclusion to realise the full potential of the capacities of our students in higher education. The main question of the conference however is not how we can change the students, but how we can change the educational institutions to become more inclusive, given the fact the student populations in Europe are diverse. And also: are these institutions transformation ready? How do they balance the nature and the needs of the diverse student bodies and how do they create a student-receptive culture? In other words: who is invited to the dance floor and does everybody know the dance steps? These questions were addressed by Dr. Tia Brown McNair, VP Diversity, Equity and Study Success of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) during her keynote at the conference. And the most important question according to her is: who plays the music? Answer to that question of course are the institutions themselves. They play the music for years now, but do they really consider the playlists of the students? Frank Tuïtt, Professor Inclusive Excellence of the University of Denver and member of the conference-panel, argues universities play the same music for hundreds of years, they offer curricula that were designed for traditional students, but not for the student bodies we face nowadays. And that’s the real issue. Students are not the problem, the institutions are. The positive thing is that more and more institutions come the same conclusions and pay a lot of attention to the ‘equity talk’. Like we do at this EAN conference. But do they really want to change? Do they really want to do the ‘equity walk’?
As a representative of the consortium of the Erasmus Plus project #Multinclude I can confirm that a lot of institutions actually do the equity walk. We have collected more than 70 interesting and relevant inclusive, educational cases which reflect the equity walk and which we present at this EAN conference.
One of the cases is Realising a University for All of the University College Dublin (UCD). UCD is also at the conference and today I visited their workshop. I was interested because I read all the documents of this wonderful initiative when we collected the documents of the 70+ cases. And I was charmed by the intentionality of the practice and the fact it is an institution-wide and holistic approach. It was launched in November 2017 by the Minister of Higher Education, Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor for UCD as a whole. By launching this initiative UCD created a platform top-down, but the real work takes place bottom-up. But does it actually work? When we collected the documents, the initiative was still very young and UCD could not provide any evidence except referring to the theoretical frameworks they used. The content of the documents was very promising, they reflected an inspiring vision and an ambition to realise change. The development of a set of underpinning principles proved an important part of the creation of a whole-institution approach. These principles would become the foundation stones for University for All.
The following principles were fashioned:
- Mainstreaming inclusion is the job of the entire university community and is the responsibility for all.
- Everyone has the right to equal participation and engagement to higher education.
- The student body entering, participation in, and competing higher education must reflect the diversity of the national population.
- Widening participation means ensuring all students can access higher education and that they have an equal opportunity to progress and succeed within and beyond University.
- To achieve University for All we must engage with everyone – students, practitioners, community partners, educators, researchers and policy makers.
- The university believes that excellence is achieved through diversity.
After attending the workshop, I am happy to share in this blog they made a lot of progress in doing the equity walk since 2017. University for All is not just an equity talk about underpinning principles. In the past two years they developed a Toolkit for Inclusive Higher Educational Institutions which they use now to facilitate the equity talk into real action. The toolkit they created is intended to offer practical assistance to advance mainstreaming and promote inclusion and, as a result, to mitigate the tendency to consider underrepresented student cohorts as ‘other’. The development of the toolkit was informed by the work of Kelly (2017), Padden (2016) and Padden, O’Connor and Barnett (2017). In particular it evolved out of the experience of the implementation of the UCD University for All initiative (Kelly & Padden, 2018), which pointed to a need for a ‘how-to’ practical guide to assist higher educational institutions to realise a whole-institution approach to mainstreaming access and inclusion. The four main components (pillars) of the toolkit are:
- Program & Curriculum Design, Teaching & Learning;
- Student Support and Services;
- Physical Campus and the Built Environment;
- Information Technology Systems and Infrastructure.
The toolkit is intended to
- Assist in creating an action plan,
- Recognise the work already achieved,
- Identify areas of priority,
- Offer practical steps to implement and embed inclusive practice,
- Facilitate dialogue between faculty, professional staff, technical staff on the importance of inclusive higher educational practice.
The toolkit has been designed for use as a self-assessment exercise. A series of statement is set out under each of the four institutional pillars. Each statement asks for a score of 0-5 (score 0 if the area has not been considered previously and score 5 if the area has been addressed and the institution is now a leader in this area nationally and internationally).
During the workshop I attended a group who discusses some statements of pillar 1 (program & curriculum design). Examples of statements are:
- Teaching staff have all been trained in diversity and inclusion e.g. disability awareness, unconscious bias, etc. (pillar 1)
- Teaching and learning professional development, including training in equity, diversity, inclusion, and universal design, is recognised formally in promotion pathways.
- The program has an articulated and promoted statement of inclusivity which is discussed with each group of students at their first meeting.
It was an interesting discussion and we experienced the toolkit is really helpful to structurally evaluate the current situation of a program, faculty or institute. At the end UCD was asked how they score themselves now. Dr. Anna Kelly and Dr. Lisa Padden answered it is not possible to score UCD as a whole. Some faculties score 0 or 1 and some score 3 or 4. I think with the design of this toolkit and providing this (open access) to the whole higher educational sector nationally and internationally they score a 5. It really helps to have structural conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity that lead to real actions. Two faculties of UCD already worked with the toolkit, the ambition is that all faculties of UCD will follow this example.
by Wâtte Zijlstra
This story is part of Multinclude Inclusion Stories about how equity is implemented in different educational environments across the globe. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Author is Programme Director at Centre of Expertise Global & Inclusive Learning (The Hague University of Applied Science – THUAS)