Symposia 3

  • Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice - 10 Years on

    Title: Challenges of diversity - exploring experiences and cultural change  

    1. Diane Burns

    2. Sadie Parr, Stephen Wan and Sue Clegg

    3. Madeleine Freewood and Len Spriggs


    1, 2 & 3 Sheffield Hallam University

    Session: Symposium  

    Themes addressed:
    Meeting the challenge of diversity Overview


    The New Labour Government in the UK has emphasised the importance of developing highly skilled knowledge workers as part of its strategy for enhancing competitiveness. Its target for higher education is to increase the participation rate to fifty percent by 2010. This strategy is not unique to the UK, but represents a considerable challenge given the historically low levels of participation in higher education in Britain. Widening participation has progressed unevenly in different institutions; case studies of particular sites are therefore particularly valuable. The symposium presents three papers reporting on research and policy from Sheffield Hallam University. The University continually commissions units, such as the Learning and Teaching Institute and the Student Services Centre, to undertake research projects, collecting and interpreting data to inform policy making. The challenges of widening participation can only be addressed by looking critically at institutional practices and exploring the full implications of diversity.

    The major success of widening participation has been the increased proportion of women entering higher education. Gender dynamics have received considerable research and policy attention. However, other areas particularly increased ethnic diversity and the inclusive policies for students with disabilities have received relatively little attention. The papers in the symposium focus on the experiences and challenges of ethnic diversity and disability. All the work is supported by the University as part of its commitment to grounding learning and teaching developments in an ongoing cycle of research.

    The first paper looks at the experiences of ethnic minority students. Universities exist as part of the wider structures of racial discrimination and unequal opportunity. Understanding the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds is therefore crucial if higher education is to move from serving the interests of pre-dominantly white, middle class students into institutions capable of embracing diversity. While there is considerable literature from the compulsory education sector, the exploration of the consequences of inclusion in higher education is in its infancy. The second paper reports on a small study of a group of academics, faced with larger classes and a more diverse student group. From the initial framing of the issues facing them in terms of student motivation, it became evident that some staff were drawing on broader racialising discourses to identify particular groups of students as a problem. The third paper looks at research into disabled students experiences. This research was initiated in response to demands from disabled students for more accessible and equitable assessment practices. For inclusion to be meaningful in meeting the needs of disabled students it must extend beyond a reactive approach and be embedded in the whole learning experience.

    Case studies can offer insight into the complex mechanisms and inter-play of meanings involved in the aspiration of embracing diversity. The papers in the symposium are aimed at opening debates on the basis of analyses of local contexts as well as broader trends. The symposium will invite participants to reflect on their own experiences and debate strategies, which can contribute to the creation of a more inclusive and democratic higher education.

    Paper One

    Title: Minority Ethnic Student's Experiences of Higher Education

    The student body within Sheffield Hallam University and the Higher Education sector more broadly within the UK is becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse. The percentage of students from minority ethnic groups entering Higher Education has steadily increased from 8.5% in 1991-1992, 9.8% in 1993-1994 to 13% in 2000 (UCCA 1992: UCAS 1994, 1995, 2001). However, as access becomes democratised then differential rates of completion appear to become more significant in relation to social divisions (e.g. Ball et al 2002). Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) has identified differential rates of completion for different ethnic groups of students. Such differentials bring the issue of diversity into sharp focus, raising questions which demand the University itself to become the subject of critical enquiry. However, in the UK research into widening participation and access into HE has not yet fully explored the needs and experiences of Black and minority ethnic students as identified by these groups of students.

    This paper draws from a recent research study to explore the differentials in completion rates for different ethnic groups at SHU. Furthermore, this research follows in the tradition of research from a feminist and/or Black perspective which make calls for the accounts of minoritised and/or disadvantaged peoples to be taken seriously (e.g. Hill Collins, 1992). The research is a qualitative study, involving 30 depth interviews with Black and minority ethnic students. In the interviews students were asked about their everyday experiences of the University, learning, teaching and assessment within their programme of study and personal support. Student's accounts have been compared and contrasted with the perceptions and views of a sample of 15 lecturing staff who participated in depth interviews about the needs and support of minority ethnic students.

    The findings show that for some students and staff, the culture of the university is one which upholds the norms and values predominant to white, middle class, Western society and in some instances Christianity. For example, students spoke of 'not fitting in' or of the 'University being too white' and as being a 'place where being Black seems to matter too much'. Other students criticised the lack of provision of Halal foods, saying ' the fact that the University does not cater for me, is like inviting someone to be a guest in your home and then expecting them to sleep on the floor'. The feeling of being at a distance to the University became more severe for students experiencing the use of racially insensitive language, and in some cases racially motivated behaviour on and off campus. Themes pertaining to the experiences of students and the subsequent approaches developed by staff to address these, including issues of how to support Black and minority ethnic students and the development of anti-racist practices, will be explored and discussed.

    Ball, S. Davies, J. David, M and Reay, D. (2002) Classification and Judgement: social class and the cognitive structures of choice of Higher Education British Journal of Sociology of Education 23(1): 51-72.

    Hill Collins, Patrica. (1990) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (London: Unwin Hyman).

    Paper Two

    Title: Racialising discourses and critical reflection in the academy

    Since the late 1980s the discourse of equal opportunities policies have made their mark on the higher education agenda. While questions of ethnicity and race have featured, anti-racism as a discourse has not been addressed (Neal, 1995). This absence is paralleled by the lack of debate within higher education literature on racism within the university sector. This is in stark contrast to the sustained debate that has taken place over the last thirty years about racism in compulsory schooling and associated strategies to eliminate it (Troyna 1993, Gillborn 1990, May 1999). The liberal ethos of the university underpins this dearth of engagement with issues of racism. Academia is discursively projected as a site of dis-interested rationality, a place where racial discrimination can have no part. However, the proposed paper argues that this is not the case. The university is no ivory tower immune from the structures and processes that affect the wider society. Greater critical reflexivity will be required if academics are to engage with broader questions of ethnic diversity and the meaning of institutionalised racism.

    The study reported in this paper sought to explore staffs' perceptions of first year students' levels of motivation. During in depth interviews, a number of lecturers as part of their dialogue about student motivation drew on broader racialising discourses to identify particular groups - male Asian students in particular - as a problematic.' These racialised discourses seemed to have been triggered by the circumstances in which lecturers find themselves: higher education has witnessed a dramatic rise in student numbers, a corresponding change in the student profile of universities, and a reduction in unit funding. While remaining overtly liberal in their attitudes to widening participation, these internal pressures were externalised by members of staff in terms of race. This shifts the blame away from the political economy of higher education and onto the student.

    While we are not claiming these perceptions are widespread we are suggesting that higher education itself needs to be treated as a place which reflects broader trends within society and as an institutional site where racial discrimination needs to be addressed. Without critical reflexivity the widening participation agenda will falter. Rather than leading to a valuing of diversity it will increase underlying tensions as some staff seek to blame diversity for the broader ills of the higher education system. Our preliminary observations highlight the need for more research into the dynamics of racialised identities in higher education, and for the need for more thorough going anti-racism policies which inform all aspects of the learning and teaching experience.

    Gillborn, D (1990). 'Race,' Ethnicity and Education: Teaching and Learning in Multiethnic Schools (Londion: Routledge).

    May, S (Ed) (1999). Critical Multiculturalism: Rethinking Multicultural and Antiracist Education. (London: Falmer Press).

    Neal, S (1995). "A question of silence? Antiracist Discourses and initiatives in Higher Education: Two Case Studies." In Griffiths and Troyna (Eds). Antiracism, Culture and Social Justice in Education. (Stoke-on-Trent:Trentham Books).

    Troyna, B (1993) Racism and Education, (Buckingham: Open University Press).

    Paper Three

    Title: Striving for genuine inclusion - the need to mainstream disability issues

    Whereas provision in Higher Education for disabled students has previously tended to focus on improving physical access or welfare support there is a growing recognition that genuine inclusion also means revisiting the curriculum, to ensure learning, teaching and assessment are themselves accessible [Adams 2000]. A point recognised and reinforced by the forthcoming Disability Discrimination Act, Part IV [HMSO 2001].

    It is no longer adequate to regard the requirements of disabled students as in some way peripheral or outside those of the larger student body, ad hoc responses to personal adjustments have to be replaced by the mainstreaming of practice and procedure in a strategic way. This means ownership of disability issues need to extend beyond the remit of a core specialised number of staff and be embedded in both teaching practice and University Policy [McCarthy & Hurst 2001].

    In recognition of this a two-year research project is being undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) to evaluate the disabled student experience of academic assessment, with a view to establishing and disseminating University-wide good practice in this area.

    This paper will report on the preliminary findings of the research drawn from data elicited from semi-structured interviews with students, school based academic and administrative staff and staff from central departments such as Registry. The methodology, based on an egalitarian research agenda as advocated by Duckett and Pratt (2001) and the literature of Disability Studies, places the contribution of disabled students in making positive changes in their experience of learning, teaching and assessment at the heart of the research process.

    The research paper will address the following main themes:

    Involving students in driving policy changes 
    Accessible and equitable assessments and the maintenance of academic standards
    Meeting the challenges of an accessible curriculum


    Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO) (1995) Disability Discrimination Act 1995 [Online] UK, London. HMSO. Last accessed on 22 January 2002 at URL:

    Adams, M (2001) Changing the Culture: Addressing the needs of disabled students, Update on Inclusion, 3, Spring 2001, p17

    Duckett, P & Pratt, R (2001) The Researched Opinions on Research: visually impaired people and visual impairment, Disability & Society, Vol. 16, 6, pp 815-835

    McCarthy, D & Hurst A (2001) A Briefing on Assessing Disabled Students, The LTSN Generic Centre Assessment Series Guides, Series no. 8, LTSN York