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This week Dr Matthew Francis and Dr Nicola Gale discuss inclusive education at a research-intensive university

One of the most important functions of the university is helping people of all ages fulfil their intellectual potential and thereby achieve their ambitions. Yet, although universities have a clear duty to promote the participation of students from all backgrounds, students from some backgrounds remain under-represented across higher education, while for others there remain stubborn attainment gaps. There has been significant progress on both of these issues across the last decade, but figures from the Equality Challenge Unit and HESA indicate that there is still considerable work to be done.

We would all agree that universities have an ethical duty to broaden and deepen participation in higher education for students from a diverse range of backgrounds. While some might ask how far the current regulatory environment supports that duty, the broader political context is focused on supporting students from a range of backgrounds. The TEF and the annual Access Agreements required by OFFA both require universities consider how to support students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups. One of the four Office for Students primary regulatory objectives will be to ensure that “all students from all backgrounds with the ability and desire to undertake higher education are  supported to access, succeed in and progress from, higher education”. The ongoing changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) also impose a greater duty on universities to fulfil the requirements of the Public Sector Equality Duty and the Equality Act (2010).

So, the key questions are: What more can we do to address the issue? What does an ‘inclusive’ education look like in a research-intensive university and – more specifically – what should it look like at the University of Birmingham?

One possible answer is to consider what we might learn from the social model of disability and how that could be relevant for other dimensions of inequality. The traditional medical model of disability views disability as the product of the characteristics of the individual and seek to help individuals to overcome particular obstacles to participation. In contrast, the social model understands disability as a product of the way in which society is organised and emphasises social change and the removal of barriers to participation.

From this perspective, the key to developing a genuinely inclusive university education is to focus on the removal of barriers to participation and attainment for all students. Rather than seeking to compensate for, or overcome, specific barriers to participation for individual students, we should develop an approach which anticipates the needs of a diverse range of students and removes barriers to participation before those students have even set foot on our physical or digital campus.  In so doing, we would be embedding inclusion into every aspect of university life.

Further Reading