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Inclusion is key for HE

Principal of University of the West of Scotland (UWS), Craig Mahoney explains why inclusion must be an absolute priority for higher education sector

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | July 13, 2017 | International

At University of the West of Scotland we define inclusion as “an engaging teaching and learning culture in which all students, supported by staff, can participate and achieve their full potential”.

We have a Corporate Strategy in place to enable everyone at UWS to “Dream, Believe, Achieve”, with a real focus on inclusivity. But once you have dreamt of the possibilities of diversity, and you have put belief in the idea of such a structure, how do you actually go about achieving this?

This was the focus of the 2017 international Higher Education Teaching and Learning Conference (HETL) hosted by University of the West of Scotland. This was the first time that the annual conference had been held in the UK, allowing delegates the opportunity to explore how ideas of inclusion and diversity might be implemented to create a new culture for higher education. One that is foreseeable to all. 

While it might not always be easy, as communities we need to change the way we think about how we treat all minorities. We need to eradicate any kind of discrimination and create a society where every person regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any other point of diversity, can experience the same possibilities and the same opportunities as their peers.

In the UK, as a developed nation, we have a significant contribution to add to the global drive for higher education and we have a responsibility to do so. We must ensure that people who want to go to university and have the skills to do so, are given the chance to realise their ambition. And while we have a responsibility to ensure that students from across the world are given the chance of a high quality education, we also have a responsibility to further our own learning through offering a diverse student population and an equally diverse staff body. 

We need to eradicate any kind of discrimination and create a society where every person regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any other point of diversity, can experience the same possibilities and the same opportunities as their peers

What is happening now, following last year’s vote to leave the EU, is that we are restricting access to students who want to study here, and staff who want to teach here. We have experienced a shift in our border controls, and with Brexit a reality rather than a possibility, we are limiting who enters our higher education system and we are sending out the message to international students that they are no longer as welcome as they once were.  This will have a significant impact on higher education, the experience it offers students and the global economy if it is allowed to continue.

Yet race and nationality are not the only barriers which our students face. There are nine ‘protected characteristics’ of discrimination outlined by the UK government* – in each of these nine points, we are constantly looking at ways we can be more inclusive, and more diverse. 

At UWS we have 16,000 students, with a quarter of these over the age of 30 – something that is quite unusual for a university. Students, in general, are viewed as 20-something school leavers but there is no reason that education should have an age bracket. Students should feel comfortable to decide when, and if, they want to further their education.

Disability is another discriminative characteristic, and with disabled people in the UK only half as likely to hold a degree-level qualification, it’s vital that we make innovative changes to the accessibility of our institutions. We need to ensure that each student feels comfortable in the environment in which they are taught.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we do not claim to be perfect, but we are really trying to recognise its importance in the way we teach.

As universities, we have a responsibility to at least try for global change. So if we aim for a teaching culture in which all students, supported by staff, are given the same opportunities to achieve their potential, then maybe we can begin to reposition what higher education is, and what it can be.

* https://www.gov.uk/discrimination-your-rights/types-of-discrimination

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