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31 August 2021

QAA Evolving Student Engagement Conference blog: Driving change for inclusivity with students as partners


Dr Zainab Khan

Pro-Vice-Chancellor Teaching and Learning, London Metropolitan University

Inspired by our annual Evolving Student Engagement Conference on 29 and 30 June, we are running a series of blog posts by conference session presenters. In this blog, Dr Zainab Khan prompts us to consider the role that student agency can play in driving change for inclusivity.


Inclusion in the context of higher education has been influenced heavily by the increased diversification of student demographics over the last 50 years. Widening participation (WP), which aims to ensure all those with the ability to benefit from higher education can do so, has been largely successful in supporting students from a range of backgrounds into higher education. Some institutions (including London Met) are now so diverse that black and ethnic minority students make up the majority of the student body.


However, market pressures have sometimes meant that institutions are guilty of interpreting WP as recruitment only, neglecting to focus on success and progression outcomes. Student diversity often doesn’t match the culture of some traditional settings, leaving many students feeling unprepared and out of place within their new environment. Across the board, there is much work to be done to create new academic conventions which are accessible, and campuses which are psychologically safe.


The cultural issues within higher education are structural, systematic and complex. No university has cracked the inclusion challenge in its entirety, but many are trying. With the prospect of a return to greater levels of activity on campus from September, there’s a need to think of what measures are in place to tackle significant national challenges. Power dynamics and culture of fear is far more common than we as staff want to accept - many students do not feel safe enough to make complaints and there are others with no faith that their institution will understand their experience.


For example, research by Stonewall in 2018 found that two in five LGBT students reportedly hide their identity at university for fear of discrimination and three in five transgender students have experienced negative comments from other students because of their identity. HEPI research in 2020 suggested that 1 in 4 disabled students regularly had trouble accessing academic spaces and lectures.


These statistics tell us that institutions need to strive to improve the inclusion of students in decision-making early on and clearly communicate why decisions have been taken, to build trust and transparency. Sometimes, students provide feedback that an institution cannot respond to as the student would like. This could be due to a range of external factors, such as the pandemic or government policy. However, if this not communicated back to students, they will simply feel like their needs have been ignored.


UK higher education rightly places a strong emphasis on the concept of ‘student voice’. Be it through sabbatical officers sitting on committees, the use of surveys and focus groups to gather student opinion, or academic representation systems, student voices play an important role in shaping their own experience in higher education. That being said, solely focusing on the student voice overlooks the longstanding power that student agency has had in influencing the inclusion agenda within higher education for many years.

Power of movements to instigate change


In reality, students’ unions and the student movement have campaigned for inclusion and  justice before universities were even talking about important issues like sexual harassment, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. The past year has seen a sharp increase in the number of universities discussing racial inequality within higher education, following’s last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. In reality, students have been calling for Rhodes to fall, asking why their curriculum is white and calling for their universities to address their colonial legacy long before institutional ‘Decolonisation Task and Finish groups’ were established.


At London Met, the Vice-Chancellor’s five-year strategy is positioned around the inclusion agenda. It’s essential that we work in partnership with our students, so they inform and shape our decisions. We believe they are best placed to tell us what it’s like being a student at London Met and how we are performing against their expectations. We do this through a range of projects based on the concept of student agency where students are involved in co-designing the university teaching and learning strategy, are employed as student curriculum partners to improve the accessibility of the learning experience, and are responsible for delivering our student-led consent training.


We want our students to convert their agency into action for social justice when they embark upon their careers. Over the next few years, we will be embedding coverage of inequalities and social issues across all our degree courses. Our hopes and ambitions are that this knowledge and expertise builds their capacity as inclusive leaders of the future.


We all need to think about how we build collective unity across identity groups. Many of the challenges facing different groups are often similar and interconnected and the solution to addressing these barriers is through systematic culture change. If you are involved in student representation, it is important to reflect on how you enable different student stakeholders to access you and engage in the activities you are leading on. This also means trying to understand and access the views of those different from your own, so hard-to-reach and marginalised voices are heard by the decision-makers.


As we move toward a post-pandemic future, it is vital that staff and students are empowered to stand up for change. We cannot leave those who are facing oppression to be the only voices calling for change or the only people carrying out this work. It is vital that we take personal and collective responsibility to create a more equitable sector, and that students are supported to play an active role in shaping this change.


QAA Members can access the recording and slides from Zainab’s presentation, as well as all the other sessions delivered at Evolving Student Engagement via our Membership Resources site. Any staff member or student from a QAA Member institution can access our Membership Resources site by simply completing our registration form.


You can also read a summary of key messages from the Conference on the QAA website.