Within higher education (HE) there are specific power dynamics that can be attributed to institutionalised intersectional inequality (for example lecturer-student hierarchy, social class and disabled student experiences) and socio-political backdrops (such as funding and policies) that can inhibit student participation, success and experience within HE. Peer-to-peer spaces can shift those power dynamics, empowering students to take agency over their ideas and knowledge.
Spaces like the Writing Café at the University of Plymouth, that draw on peer support, interdisciplinary work and non-hierarchical engagement(s), are imperative for improving participation within HE for underrepresented students (Baer & Kearney, in press). In attempting to create a universally inclusive space, the Writing Café has generated increased participation from disabled students. This blog reflects on the facilitation of inclusion through peer-to-peer work in the Writing Café focusing on two key practical and pedagogic aspects. All data referred to in this article is taken from our Access Participation Plan (APP) evaluation data from 2020/21 and 2021/22.
HE and academic practices can be difficult to navigate for disabled people, and despite increases in participation for disabled students (HESA, 2022), their experience and attainment fall short in comparison to that of their peers. Operating at Plymouth since 2014, the Writing Café was created with the intention of providing ‘a developmental, creative space’ outside of academic norms (Pritchard, 2015). It is a unique space that utilises peer-to-peer support and non-academic terrains (in-person and digitally) to engage students in discussions about their academic writing with trained writing mentors. The introduction of our hybrid Writing Café service on return from the pandemic resulted in a 45 per cent increase in participation, and the engagement with it by underrepresented groups was 10 per cent more than the university demographic of such students.
‘The Writing Café is a unique space that utilises peer-to-peer support and non-academic terrains (in-person and digitally) to engage students in discussions about their academic writing with trained writing mentors.’
Intentional design for accessibility
Practical inclusion and accessibility are rooted within the design of the Writing Café and how it is run. The Writing Café offers drop-in, non-commitment peer-facilitated sessions which can provide ease of access and more comfort when thinking about seeking academic support. Disabled students make up one-fifth of home students within HE (HESA, 2022), and they have been traditionally excluded from participating due to prior inequitable experiences in education and society. Therefore, this more informal approach to academic support can ensure there is a space for support even for students who may be uncertain or unfamiliar with HE.
The current hybrid offer reflects an intentional shift in the accessibility of the Writing Café in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a nationwide push for HE to settle back into face-to-face teaching, the Writing Café identified the value of providing both physical and digital provision. This aligns with campaigns such as ‘Going Back Is Not a Choice’ (DSUK, 2022), reflecting on how online learning during the pandemic often improved the experience of disabled students and provided additional support and resource in a way that was not experienced before. Our data shows that disabled students engage slightly more in-person than digitally but engage with both spaces; for 2020/21, while only offering online provision, disabled student engagement was 15.6 per cent, but for Term 1 of 2021, when offering hybrid provision, engagement was 27.6 per cent for disabled students. This data suggests that being flexible creates the conditions for inclusion, resulting in increased engagement. Flexibility and choice can empower students to take ownership of their learning and provide opportunities to engage in ways that meet their needs.
Pedagogic considerations to create inclusion
As a peer-to-peer space, based within the library, away from the classroom, the Writing Café challenges traditional academic hierarchy and repositions who has the knowledge. Writing mentors are often non-subject specific, meaning students seeking support become the expert in their field, in contrast to their typical classroom experience. This can become empowering for students, as they get to evidence their expertise to themselves through working with a writing mentor; rather than being receivers of knowledge, they share their subject knowledge with the writing mentor, illustrating mutuality. This reflects how pedagogy and practical considerations interlink to create the conditions for inclusion.
The nature of Writing Café engagements can remove some of the academic barriers that exist in HE, providing a space for mutual discussions, confusion and development, thus challenging norms in academia that are situated around confidence and certainty (Beckman et al., 2018). This enables the development and navigation of new ways of working, which supports students who have been excluded from HE such as disabled students, as new academic norms can be developed with students at the core of this knowledge creation.
Overall, the design and the intentional hybrid accessibility of the Writing Café is inclusive for many individuals, providing benefits to students with diverse and intersectional characteristics. Particularly, the Writing Café is enabling disabled students to engage through a variety of means and is challenging traditional and exclusive academic norms in an effort to support them through their HE journey in a flexible way. The space integrates pedagogy and practicality to create the conditions for inclusion.
Baer, C., & Kearney, N. (in press). A space for partnership and empowerment: How the Writing Café negotiates inclusion in higher education. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.
Beckman, K., Apps, T., Bennett, S., & Lockyer, L. (2018). Conceptualising technology practice in education using Bourdieu’s sociology. Learning, Media and Technology, 43(2), 197–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2018.1462205
Disabled Students UK [DSUK]. (2022). Going back is not a choice: Accessibility lessons for higher education. https://disabledstudents.co.uk/not-a-choice/
Higher Education Statistical Agency [HESA]. (2022). Who’s studying in HE?. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/whos-in-he
Pritchard, C. (2015). Mentoring in the Writing Café: Identity, belonging and ownership. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.47408/jldhe.v0i0.305