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!

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2 Responses to What’s in a name?

  1. This is likely to be a fascinating conference and this blog gives an indication of some of the complexities around the debates for ‘inclusion’ and ‘widening participation.’ 
However, I wonder if there’s room to strengthen our understanding of the link between ‘widening’ (or increasing) participation and inclusive curriculum.
    As someone who was born deaf and attended a special school for the deaf as a childhood before proceeding to mainstream education, I have only in recent years come to understand why I felt so distanced from my school and university learning as a young student . . . and it had nothing to do with the absence of note-takers, interpreters (I don’t sign in any case) or working microphones. And nor did it have an awful lot to do with lecturers who spoke behind their bushy beards or faced the blackboard (yes, I’m that old) for the duration of their classes, although observing the basic courtesies of clarity of speech would have done wonders to my morale, not to mention my comprehension of the course materials.
    Rather, it was because not once in my entire academic study career (spanning school days through to university studies in arts {literature & history], journalism, social work and creative writing) did I ever encounter any discussion within any of the course materials about the lives, experiences, insights, wisdom, contributions (worthy or otherwise) of deaf people and people with disabilities.
    If we do not see ourselves reflected in any of the course materials, how do we get to understand ourselves? More importantly, why should we even bother to turn up at universities in the first place? If universities themselves cannot be bothered to include the experiences of the lives of deaf people and people with disabilities in their mainstream programs – only ceding ground to the occasional disability studies programs (and even they are under threat in some universities now . . . thankfully, not Griffith) – then why should we invest our trust in the quality and substance of their ‘teaching’?
    I could be accused of being shrill in making my point, but sometimes it takes a shout to be heard.

    Donna McDonald BA BSW PhD
    Senior Lecturer & Convenor Disability Studies
    Griffith University, Australia

  2. Jen Millar says:

    As a mom of a Special needs child I am looking forward to the outcome of this conference in 2012. University’s need to be examing their processes for how to include young adults with disabilities. Unversity’s have been able to avoid a lot of the ADA laws until recently. There is definately a place for a cognitively intact special needs adult to pursure a higher education. I would even argue as we pursue students from other countries, we need to make sure we are meeting the needs of those student who will require some accomadations and embrace that diversity as well. Jen Millar, RNC, MSN

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