Yesterday, Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum Centre-Forward Terry Di Paolo and I debated whether we had called our forthcoming conference – Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education – the right thing.
The aims for the conference are to further intellectualise the debates around equity and widening participation in higher education, and at the same time appeal to a wide international base of researchers, practitioners and policy makers.
We both had a dread feeling that the selected key term ‘inclusion’ might equally mean something to everybody and nothing to anybody. And in the course of this conceptual vagueness, we might inadvertedly have created a conference that was paradoxically one of ‘exclusion’.
Although the UK has near fetishized the term ‘widening participation’, I think we would claim a reasonable understanding of what it might mean. My fear however is that it is not in international terms as universally understood. Australia’s own programme of addressing under-representation in higher education is most usually referred to as ‘equity’: a term which UK-ers might themselves find an extremely vague one, which has not really been adopted in any political or social sphere.
But ‘inclusion’ itself is a potential minefield too. Researchers and practitioners with an interest in disability have quite a specific (if expansive) understanding of the term as relating to disability. And when attached to an area of interest, for example ‘inclusive curriculum’ it has the potential to mean quite different things to different constituencies.
So in the UK we often revert to the safe haven of ‘widening participation’ to capture our territory. In the process we risk marginalisation of our international colleagues, but we also risk something much more serious – the obfuscation of the social justice value itself. Many commentators have pondered the policy and practice of widening participation in UK higher education and concluded that much of the difficulty in achieving a consistent message lies in the reality that the UK policy initiative, which commenced in earnest with the election of the 1997 Labour Government, was not in actual fact a policy to widen participation at all. Rather it was a policy to increase participation in absolute terms, couched in a cozy rhetoric. Universities saw the benefits of a programme of expansion and ran with the notion, espousing social justice values often as a marketing strategy to maximise recruitment. No universities felt particularly constrained in how they might respond to the policy goal, because it was vague enough to allow for almost any action to count. We are all aware of the baggage the term ‘widening participation’ has accumulated over its 15 year trajectory and the still present dangers of perpetuating a deficit model which places the student, rather than the institution, as lacking in ‘what it takes’ to succeed.
Although this has lead me (with others) to call for a radical rethink in terminology, I find myself, whilst puzzling through this conference title, to think that I’ve not got any real answers. I’m such a hypocrite. Ho hum.
As a postscript this this blog: we’ve decided to remain with the title Discourses of Inclusion, but for the benefit of certain audiences, to add direct reference to ‘widening participation’ (with all its conceptual and political baggage). So all look now to the OU’s Widening Participation Conference 2012: Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education. We’ll see you there!