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?

My worst teaching experience (so far)

I have had a number of bad experiences in teaching, difficult students, technical failures, a students nodding off, but this blog is an account of my worst experience in teaching. I emphasise the so far part. Teaching is a fickle mistress possessed of mood swings envied by even the most hormonal teens. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how much you plan, sometimes it just goes badly.

I’ve been writing an essay on student support this weekend and it reminded me of an episode in my teaching that I will not soon forget. the reason I describe this episode as the worst experience was because it was an emotionally challenging event. I have never before, or since, had a student cry in one of my sessions.

I was delivering a 3.5 hour long session on using Gmail. 3.5 hours?! you say. I know, that’s a long time but you left knowing everything you needed to know about Gmail. Incidentally this puts me in mind of the time a member of ICT attended one of our sessions and told my colleague that what was taught could be done in an hour. It’s safe to assume we ignored their advice. Anyway, a student, lets call the student Anne, attended this session and was profoundly deaf choosing not to use hearing aids. So I couldn’t rely on technology to save me.

Anne and I spoke before the session began about what she needed me to do. Face her at all times and speak slowly so she could read my lips. Easy enough I thought and began with gusto. I had no idea how hard it is to modify behaviour that has become completely unconscious. I realised I had delivered that session so many times every gesture and phrase was so natural I barely thought about it. At the end of the session I noticed she looked upset.

Once alone I approached her, at which point she cried, and told me she had found the whole session overwhelming. Trying to read my lips and perform the tasks on the computer was too much for her. This was the point at which I wanted the ground to open and swallow me whole.

In retrospect I should have slowed my delivery, ensured she was looking at me before speaking and avoided speaking whilst asking them to perform a task.

I should have checked on her during the break, I could have intervened earlier and modified my behaviour. I also didn’t want her to feel that I was checking up on her, that I was treating her differently to everyone else.

I should have talked more slowly, ensured I didn’t ask her to do something on the computer whilst I was talking and that I had her eye contact whilst I was speaking. It’s very difficult. Teaching had become so unconscious it was hard to get out of old habits.

I tried to reassure her that it was not admitting defeat and that she should do whatever helped her learn. We discussed what we should do at length and decided that in future she would learn best when taught by me on her own.

It was by far my worst experience. I felt so guilty. She had come on my course and left feeling awful. I’ve never been under the illusion that people left like this:

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But to have a student leave having been so upset was devastating.

What is inclusive practice?

Inclusive practice is an approach to teaching that seeks to ensure that all students are able to participate in learning and demonstrate their abilities in assessment. Students should not be disadvantaged by culture, religion, disability or previous educational background.

Reflecting on your teaching practice You can increase the effectiveness of your teaching practice by reflecting on diversity, being aware of how your own background and identity are expressed in course design and teaching style, and understanding your reactions to particular individuals and communities to recognise your affinities and prejudices and consider how they affect students’ experiences of your course.

  • Plan teaching to include opportunities to encouraging interaction between students of different backgrounds. This could be done by allocating groups for tasks.
  • Use accessible language. Try to avoid colloquialisms that may not be understood by all.
  • Use examples that speak to the diversity of the student group. By acknowledging as many voices as possible you will engage more of the student group.
  • Use a variety of teaching and assessment methods. As long as the learning objectives are met you can be flexible about how students are assessed.
  • Try to open dialogue with disable students, they know best what adjustments they may need to learn effectively.
  • Be flexible about how you teach, the materials you use and the formats you provide.
  • Be open to the use of assistive technologies.

Disabled? I’m not. So what?

Let me start by saying the title of this blog in no way represents my feelings towards disability. I simply used it as a cheap and tawdry device to draw attention to an issue which is often overlooked.

I attended a fantastic training session last week called Dis-ability Confident facilitated by Clare Mclaughlin. I must confess to some reticence about attending this workshop. There is an innate fear of “putting your foot in it” when you attend sessions on such sensitive topics or that you will leave with a glossary of terms that you should or should not say. I had no need to fear. Clare was a superb facilitator and the session was all about empowerment.

“They are not broken, they are who they are.” – Clare Mclaughlin

So why should I care?

It’s the law.

It is very difficult to understand or empathise with disability if you have no direct experience of it. If you look purely at the numbers, there are approximately 9.8 million disabled people in the UK, that’s about 6% of the UK population. It’s easy to think 6% is a small number and question whether reasonable adjustments are necessary or time and cost effective. The 9.8 million figure is purely an estimate, not all who have conditions recognised as a disability identify themselves as disabled.

“It is not what I can’t do that disables me, it’s how society treats me.” – Clare Mclaughlin

There’s no alternative

As an institution we are legally obliged to ensure that all reasonable adjustments are made to ensure that noone is disadvantaged due to a disability. With the removal of the Disable Students Allowance, along with other support for disabled people, there is nothing in place to do the hard work for us. We are out of excuses.

Assumptions

It’s easy to forget that disability covers a wide ranging number of conditions. From those you can see to mental illness and terminal illnesses. As Clare said, because there’s a figure in a wheelchair on the toilet door we all assume that being disabled is purely physical. We assume that people using a wheelchair do so because they cannot stand or walk. This isn’t necessarily true, many use a wheelchair for stamina and strength issues. As Claire said, if we see someone standing up from their wheelchair they haven’t suddenly been cured nor are they defrauding anyone.

 “Put the person first, not the disability.” – Clare Mclaughlin

How someone identifies with disability can be diverse due to cultural, generational or personal experiences. For example, Clare explained that some countries she travels to can assume that the company she works for have not sent their ‘top’ staff due to her hearing aids.

 The Disabled Student

We tend to homogenise the student. There’s the international student, the undergraduate student, the part time student, the postgraduate student, the mature student et al. I have always had a problem with “the student” who we talk a lot about but never see or hear from. (It’s all very Upstairs Downstairs.)

Clare’s point was simple, remove the word disabled and just talk about support that is available to all students. Students are more likely to seek out and identify with support that does not label them as disabled. Many do not wish to be labelled as mentally ill, diabetic, dyslexic etc.

After all, disabled or not, they are all students.