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Lessons about inclusion in higher education: A last chance to engage with Erasmus

George Koutsouris, University of Exeter Lauren Stentiford, University of Exeter Tricia Nash, University of Exeter

Inclusion is arguably an ethical obligation, grounded in notions of equity and social justice for all groups and at all stages of education (Ainscow, 2020). With a growing number of students from increasingly diverse backgrounds now entering higher education (HE), the ‘university’ represents a distinctive space where the inclusion agenda is becoming more influential. It has been suggested that university leaders feel under increased pressure to demonstrate inclusivity and improve the nature of educational provision so that all students can feel welcome and be successful on equality grounds (Basit & Tomlinson, 2012).
In our work, we have explored different expressions of inclusion within an HE context, namely inclusive pedagogies (Stentiford & Koutsouris, 2020) and ideas about ‘ideal’ students (Koutsouris et al., 2021). In our most recent study, we explore the way inclusion is presented in ‘elite’ Russell Group universities’ equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies (Koutsouris et al., 2022). Elsewhere, we have argued that inclusion in HE is often treated without the appropriate reflection, with the risk being ‘that complex issues are often expected to be resolved with superficial solutions in the name of valuing diversity’ (Stentiford & Koutsouris, 2020, p. 1). Further, we argue that inclusion is now often treated as a ‘selling point’ for HE institutions and a performance/quality index, which reflects how educational reform has centred on marketisation, managerialism and performativity (see Ball, 2003).

These matters are not often discussed in the HE literature or within institutions. Recently, we engaged with inclusion in HE through our involvement with the SPISEY (Supporting Practices for Inclusive Schooling & Education for Youth) project. SPISEY is an Erasmus+ project (2019–22) with partners from Denmark, Finland, France, Spain and the UK that examined ways of fostering inclusion by building on the Inclusion Compass that was originally designed in the Danish context. The plan was for all countries to recruit primary and secondary schools and work with the compass to guide planning for inclusion. However, Covid-19 impacted these plans, and we conducted the study within our own institution, translating the aims and focus of the project to inclusion in HE.
As part of the project, we organised a range of activities including a student survey, interviews with academic and professional services staff, and focus groups with students recruited through EDI groups. One student told us: ‘I have not thought about inclusion in HE before. This is quite a new thing for me.’ However, one could argue that inclusion is everywhere in HE, from policy documents to the way universities are advertising themselves online – so what this suggests, in fact, is that there might not often be deep and honest discussions about inclusion among all stakeholder groups in HE institutional communities.

‘Inclusion is a particularly complex notion … This complexity may place doubt on top-down “visions” for inclusion often adopted by HE institutions that, without being negotiated within local institutional communities, might not prove to be meaningful.’

Inclusion is a particularly complex notion associated with values that are understood differently by different people (see for example Norwich, 2008). University staff told us that understandings of inclusion vary not just between one institution and another but also between different departments. This complexity may place doubt on top-down ‘visions’ for inclusion often adopted by HE institutions that, without being negotiated within local institutional communities, might not prove to be meaningful (Schuelka & Engsig, 2022). 

Our engagement with the SPISEY project gave us both the space and opportunity to engage with these ideas about inclusion in HE more deeply, and highlighted the importance of ensuring that discussions on inclusion are ongoing, involve all stakeholders and are critical in nature. We hope that such discussions will continue within our institution long after the project ends.

This blog links to the article ‘A critical exploration of inclusion policies of elite UK universities’ by George Koutsouris, Lauren Stentiford and Brahm Norwich, published by the British Educational Research Journal

References

Ainscow, M. (2020). Promoting inclusion and equity in education: Lessons from international experiences. Nordic Journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 6(1), 7–16. 
Ball, S. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228. 
Basit, T., & Tomlinson, S. (2012). Social inclusion and higher education. Policy Press.
Koutsouris, G., Mountford-Zimdars, A., & Dingwall, K. (2021). The ‘ideal’ higher education student: Understanding the hidden curriculum to enable institutional change. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 26(2), 131–147. 
Koutsouris G., Stentiford L., & Norwich B. (2022). A critical exploration of inclusion policies of elite UK universities. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication. 
Norwich, B. (2013). Addressing tensions and dilemmas in inclusive education: Living with uncertainty. Routledge.
Schuelka, M. J., & Engsig, T. T. (2022). On the question of educational purpose: Complex educational systems analysis for inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 26(5), 1–18. 
Stentiford, L., & Koutsouris, G. (2020). What are inclusive pedagogies in higher education? A systematic scoping review. Studies in Higher Education, 46(11), 1–17.