We like to ask questions in higher education. To ask a question is to challenge perceptions, seek solutions, connect with others, or articulate a concern. Asking questions can be brave – for to name a problem is sometimes to yourself pose a problem (Ahmed: 2017).
Higher education is currently engaging more than ever before with some hard questions about teaching and learning. In the UK for example, we’ve been asked “why is my curriculum white?” and “who are universities for?” (Sperlinger et al: 2016)
The ‘why’ and the ‘who’ are important. Institutional structures and histories have of course been shaped by their communities and decision-makers. Reflecting on those histories – how our ideas and thinking and ‘canon’ came to be – may help not only to enrich our collective scholarships but help us to better understand their potential futures. Such reflection is timely (and sometimes overdue), as many institutions diversify their student - and staff - cohorts: either intentionally as a means to redress historic underrepresentation or marginalisation, or as a response to changing international or national demands and demographics. With this, and against a background of sector discussions about accessibility, decolonising, indigenisation and internationalisation (overlapping but by no means identical discussions), there is also the question about the role of the curriculum itself in more systemic institutional transformation.
What do we mean by ‘inclusion’ anyway?
Individual and institutional understandings or ‘inclusion’ vary widely though our working definition at Advance HE when engaging with members has traditionally referred to inclusive practice as:
the ways in which pedagogy, curricula and assessment are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. It embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity that can enrich the lives and learning of others.”
It’s not only individual difference, of course. We want to draw attention to the possibilities of inclusive curricula in not only redressing the marginalisation or inaccessibility of certain groups and identities within any institution or discipline, but also in helping higher education as a whole reach its full potential. There are wider opportunities to all students – and the academy – in enriched and expanded scholarship, as well as building the skills and knowledge of all students as future leaders, members of the academy, or wider, diverse, workforce.
Many of these approaches align strongly with the aims of wider equality duties placed on an institution by legislation, funding or policy (for example, in much of the UK there are specific ‘public sector equality duties’ relevant to the wider learning environment, as well as major policy drivers to eliminate persistent ‘gaps’ in degree outcomes between different student groups).
These aren’t new conversations of course. They build on the learning and activism of UDL (universal design for learning) and a ‘social justice’ approach or national conversations on educational inequities. Some institutions will centre on an approach that calls for a more active holistic redress of historical inequality, for example, through decolonising, indigenisation (Pidgeon, M: 2016) or ‘interculturalism’. Others highlight the need to tackle specific inequities more actively through anti-racist pedagogy or a ‘transformative’ approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion and mental health and wellbeing. There are inevitably tensions and tricky understandings to unpick when prioritising any new conversations about curriculum.
Posing questions in curriculum design
At Advance HE we tend to use a broad definition of ‘curriculum’: we are not only talking about curriculum content (and reading lists) or accessibility of materials. We also work with members to think about wider reflective questions of structural privileges and the ‘hidden’ curriculum; educator reflection and positionality and the learning environments we create. Such complexity of scope we hope reflects complexity of aims: acknowledging that each institution, discipline, or programme or educator will wish to work to explore their own community and disciplinary context.
So, where is the individual educator and practitioner in this work?
Individuals are faced with their own question about how curriculum design, content, or delivery can and should adapt to meet the needs of their students.
- What does an inclusive approach mean for their own professional practice and development – how can reflection be supported and informed?
- What is the role of the student in informing, consulting or co-producing a new curricula or learning and teaching environment?
- How can curriculum designers work within the institutional and disciplinary structures around them (or even change them)?
- How should enhancement priorities reflect external or local policy drivers, or be informed by evidence from new equality metrics, and student feedback?
- How do we incorporate cross-border experiences and values into ‘global’ higher education?
These are hard questions: they should be. Institutions take different approaches to supporting staff – as individuals and as communities of practice – in this work. Sometimes it is commitment to pedagogical research; sometimes practical classroom ‘tips’; analysis of more granulated ‘equality’ data or learning analytics; or engagement in wider reflections and critical support through curricula review frameworks.
Approaching change: practice, policy and pedagogy
We’re delighted that our Global Perspectives webinar Designing an inclusive curriculum: global perspectives on embracing diversity will enable our members to hear direct from those at tackling some of these questions in Australia, South Africa and the UK.
The concept of ‘inclusion’ is wide, and the needs of different student groups and intersecting marginalisations require their own careful consideration. However, for this webinar we’ve gathered a group of speakers in particular to speak to overarching themes of inclusive curricula in the context of: consideration of equity for different racialised or ethnic backgrounds; internationalisation; and decolonisation. As educators, researchers and leads of institutional change programmes we hope their reflections with start conversations in your own institutions.
Jess Moody is a Senior Adviser at Advance HE specialising in equity and inclusion across student and staff lifecycles. She is currently leading a second collaborative cohort of UK institutions exploring ‘EDI in the Curriculum’.
Designing an inclusive curriculum: global perspectives on embracing diversity is an Advance HE member-only webinar on 30 March. Find out more and book your place
- Ahmed, S. (2017). Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press
- Pidgeon, M. (2016). More than a checklist: Meaningful Indigenous inclusion in higher education. Social inclusion,4(1), 77-91.
- Sperlinger, T., McLellan J., Pettigrew, R. (2018) Who are Universities For? Re-Making HIgher Education, Bristol University Press