When does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

A recent Guardian Higher Education article titled It’s hard being a carer and a PhD student. My university couldn’t care less has inspired me to ask the question; when does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

I love the Guardian Higher Ed articles, they are always thought-provoking. So what compelled me to write about this one in particular? I think it was how torn I felt when reading it. Based on the title I fully expected to sympathise with this student. I thought I would be compelled to vilify the University. That some terrible injustice had occurred. What I actually felt when reading it was not the overwhelming sympathy I expected.

The article

The article is written by a PHD student and parent to a disabled teenage son for whom they are a carer. They describe the incidents at school, the meetings and hospital appointments they have to manage as part of their sons care. However, they do feel that they are successful in their research but they have not been able to secure funding.

I am starting to win awards for my research and I feel like a success story. Almost. There’s just one problem: I can’t get funding.

In particular the student feels that they are being overlooked when applying for funding and that priority is being given to younger students with top grades and traditional academic backgrounds. They also feel under supported by their University and that the alternative funding routes are used as an excuse for universities not to support students in her situation.

This is discrimination and it is self-perpetuating. We only fund those who have already achieved, and we fund them to continue to achieve.

The student feels discriminated against. It’s a bold word to use and it is the accusation of discrimination that I wish to explore in this post.

The importance of inclusive practice

Let me start by clarifying that this post is not questioning the importance of inclusive practice. I wholeheartedly agree with the principle that all students should have an equal opportunity to excel in their studies.

Inclusive learning and teaching recognises all students’ entitlement to a learning experience that respects diversity, enables participation, removes barriers and anticipates and considers a variety of learning needs and preferences – HEA Academy

What I am questioning is the murky area that exists around inclusive practice. At what point does inclusive practice become preferential treatment. When does ensuring one student isn’t disadvantaged disadvantage the other students? Where is the line?

Support

Clearly the students University is not supporting carers and students in their situation. The student had to explain to every department student advice, student union, graduate school, vice deans and chaplain what a carer was and what that role entails. Rather than helping the student with the issue they were most concerned about, their study and their roles impact on their future, they helped the student with information on benefits. No department was able to help this student with advice on improving their funding applications or academic profile. Instead the student was pointed to the Alternative Funding Guide.

I had to tell them what a carer is. You get the picture. I was invisible

I can completely understand why this student is frustrated. The people who should be able to help are not. I can also see why the student feels being pointed at the Alternative Funding Guide is an easy way for the university to appear to be helping without actually having to help. It reminds me somewhat of the DSA. It’s existence meant we didn’t have to do anything, we had someone else we could fob students off to. The same appears to be the case here. Where can we fob this student off to rather than actually working to introduce the structures and processes that would actually help them.

Academic Achievement and Age

The main points raised were that the funding goes to ‘younger’ students with top grades and ‘traditional’ paths in to academia.

But the funding tends to go to students half my age with straight-A academic results – not to people like me, who have taken an unusual path to academia.

I have to ask what is wrong with that? The student asked why they were turned down for funding and was told it came down to academic results.

“it all comes down to stellar academic results”

This is where I lost sympathy. Funding is provided to support research of significance to its field, given to those who have a proven ability to complete that research to a high standard. Apparently that’s not written on the application forms? Surely someone who has chosen to work in the academic field knows how important academic achievements are?

They don’t say this on the application forms; it’s all about the originality of your project, your research statement, your supervisor’s supporting statement, the panel that considers you, the level of competition.

So even if it came down solely to the criteria listed above originality, research statement, supporting statements etc there is still a huge chance that the students work is not original enough perhaps their statements aren’t as strong as the other students. Perhaps the panel does not feel their area of research is as relevant to their field as another students.

The competition

So why shouldn’t the funding go to the students with the best record of achievement? They too work hard, they too have their own challenges and they deserve to be considered in the same way as all other students. A principle of inclusive practice is that all students should have the opportunity to excel. Yes, this students personal life may make that more difficult but she has the same opportunity to apply for funding as all the other students and should be measured on the same criteria as all other students.

So because this student has a difficult time should the other students miss out on the opportunity, miss out on the fruits of their hard work, because the students personal life and background is unusual. Should we just be giving them funding because they have had a hard time rather than because they actually deserve it?

Positive Discrimination

Would creating funding pools solely for students with diversity and inclusion characteristics be positive discrimination? Would we not be creating a system that favours those students over others. We’re not supposed to discriminate against anyone.

In conclusion

I really found this article divisive. On one hand I felt the student should be getting funding and their circumstances should be considered. But on the other hand, the student is seeking funding alongside students, who for all they know, may have challenges themselves. Sometimes in life you simply have to acknowledge that other people are better than you. Perhaps their circumstances mean they can’t apply themselves in the same way as some of their competition. But that doesn’t mean they should be favoured over the others. We are in academia. Academic skills count.

Funding applications are like job applications. Are you the best person on the day? If you’re not you just have to live with it. That is life.

So what do you think? Where does inclusive practice become preferential treatment?

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