The context of student engagement and inclusive cultural change in higher education
Student ‘engagement’ is a buzzword in international higher education defined by students’ involvement in activities that are connected to their learning (Klause and Armitage, 2008). Students who actively engage with their University through not only their academic curricula, but also co-curricular activities are less likely to drop out and more likely to achieve better outcomes (Thomas, 2012).
However, not all university students engage with their institutions to the same degree. These groups include mature students and those who are first generation to higher education, students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, as well as those from lower socio-economic households. Longstanding research points to the lack of connection between these groups of students and their universities due in part to the fact that their traditions, values and behaviours are not represented or reflected in the cultures of higher education institutions. As a result, they do not feel that they fit in or belong (Reay et al. 2010). More recent research has highlighted the centrality of connection as a foundation of belonging (Blake et. al., 2022). Non- inclusive institutional cultures which undermine other ways of being, knowing, learning and doing at University operate to maintain the educational advantage of some student groups over others (UUK, 2022).
Therefore, institutional practices have a significant influence on the feelings of connectedness and belonging of differential student groups and ultimately their engagement with their universities which in turn have tangible impacts of their outcomes. So the challenge for universities is how they open dialogue to better understand and therefore more effectively connect and reflect the lived experiences of these underrepresented groups of students (and staff).
Becoming more inclusive in engaging students
Within the context of student engagement, many universities have made a conscious attempt to evaluate whose voices are being heard through analysis of variable participation in their student representation and co-curricular programmes, seeking to develop new student engagement programmes which encourage participation from, or explicitly support, student groups who have been identified as being disenfranchised. In so doing, universities have begun to take steps to use student engagement programmes to better understand differential experiences in their institutions and work to use these voices to progress change programmes which challenge them to be more inclusive institutions.
We explored various student engagement programmes in six higher education institutions in England which have been developed to support inclusivity in their Universities.
The collaborating universities, led by Kingston University, are part of the University Alliance which is a mission group which represents large to mid-sized universities which partner with industry and the professions to deliver the workforce of today and tomorrow through practical, skills-based learning and applied research. The following institutions are part of the project:
- Kingston University (Lead)
- Anglia Ruskin University
- Birmingham City University
- Teesside University
- University of Brighton
- University of Hertfordshire
Each institution put forward at least one of their student engagement programmes to be included in the project.
The project identified the key ingredients which render these institutional initiatives as successful in moving the dial on inclusivity and presents best practice across the six institutions which support meaningful, far-reaching, and sustained inclusive transformation.
After collating details of the various student engagement programmes across our six institutions, we held a sandpit event which brought together colleagues and students from our participating institutions (facilitated by external facilitators). The approach drew on the innovative Teaching Excellence Alliance (TEA) Sandpit which was developed by the University Alliance to provide a non-hierarchical and inclusive environment with a focus on strategic impact to educational challenges.
Our key attributes to drive cultural change
Working collaboratively with the six partner institutions, this project has identified that the following attributes are the most effective in supporting the transition to more inclusive institutional cultures:
Intentional: Programmes focused on an equality, diversity and inclusion issue, or addressed an existing identified deficit in the representation of diverse experiences in existing and planned student engagement strategies.
Authentic: Programmes engaged participants, both students and staff, who reflected the diversity of the student body, expressing a range of underrepresented voices and including lived experiences of marginalisation and disenfranchisement.
Co-created: Programmes moved beyond collaboration and were truly co-created with the students working towards a trusted partnership.
Empowering: Programmes empowered their participants to evoke change and assist the institution to better understand how their existing institutional cultures are exclusionary.
Flexible: Programmes were agile and actively evolved and developed through their engagement with students, staff and the institution.
Championed: Programmes were championed by a senior leader to ensure profile and effective resourcing.
Visible: Programmes were shared with a variety of key stakeholders at all levels, promoting a coherent and consistent narrative around equity and inclusion.
Embedded: Programmes became key components in the delivery of institutional priorities and were embedded within institutional processes, such as academic and corporate governance.
Evaluated: Programmes were comprehensively evaluated to show the impact on students, staff and the institution as a whole.
As a result, we have created a toolkit that includes and describes in detail these attributes and which supports university leaders, Student Engagement Programme Leads and students to develop effective programmes which move the dial on inclusivity by offering a framework to design and implement their programmes.
Tell us more about your experience, how do student engagement programmes in your institution contribute to inclusive cultural change?
Blake, S., Capper, G. and Jackson, A. (2022) Building Belonging in Higher Education: Recommendations for developing an integrated institutional approach (wonkhe.com)
Krause, K. and Armitage, L. (2014) Australian student engagement, belonging, retention and success: a synthesis of the literature, York: HEA
Reay, D., Crozier, G. & Clayton, J. (2010) ‘Fitting in’ or ‘standing out’: working‐class students in UK higher education, British Educational Research Journal, Volume 36, Issue 1, 2010 DOI:10.1080/01411920902878925.
Thomas, L. (2012) What Works? Student Retention and Success. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.
UUK (2022) Closing the Gap Three Years On