Student belonging is a critical element not just of widening access to higher education but of the wider debate accompanying Black Lives Matter around inclusivity and the HE sector. As Christine Kinnear argues in this blog, in the mission to make HE a welcoming space for all students, small steps can go a long way. Christine is the Founder and CEO of With Insight Education C.I.C and a member of AccessHE’s BAME Forum. You can find out more about her work at https://www.withinsightedu.org/.
“It was the first time that I have ever had to categorise myself as other! It doesn’t say much for how welcome I’ll be if my ethnicity isn’t even listed on their registration form does it?”
I have absolutely no doubt that there is a genuine desire across the university sector to widen access. You only need look at the number and variety of access initiatives to see the effort going into this area. Yet their impact is diminished if the minor interactions that prospective pupils have with the university leave them feeling unwelcome.
If we want pupils to feel comfortable to bring their whole self to university, then we need to present them with an environment in which they don’t need to contort around a prescribed profile. An environment in which their interactions with the people that they meet and the processes that they encounter scream, ‘You are just as entitled to a place here as anyone else.’
Yet, too often the reality is the opposite and the impact can be devastating. I had my own experience of what this does to a young person when my daughter went to an open day masterclass but who, as the only person of colour out of a group of 30 pupils, was stopped at the entrance and asked what she was doing there. Suddenly, here was a 16-year old child who was forced to ask herself if she was resilient enough to withstand these types of encounters. Fortunately, she was. But how many others are not? How many others will hear, see or have experiences that make them feel that their class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, etc is too much of a barrier to acceptance and give up on their dreams?
Diversity without inclusion is futile. I implore widening participation teams to consider how they can ensure that inclusion, as represented in the culture, people and processes that prospective students encounter, gets the focus that it deserves.
Going back to my A-level student at the start of this blog, an extra tick box on a form would have made a world of difference to them. The university had created a fantastic summer school experience yet a failure to sweat the small stuff resulted in this otherwise great initiative being perceived as elaborate window dressing to an institution at which their identity literally wasn’t recognised.
Engendering a sense of belonging is behind the design of our access programme Insight2Uni. Providing our black-heritage A-level mentees with relatable black-heritage role-models from top 1/3 ranked university works wonders in building their confidence. As one pupil put it, “It makes it easier to relate as you can see yourself in a similar position and this kind of bridges the gap to getting into university.”
So, applause for all the hard work that goes into attracting a diverse range of applicants. However, until universities also ensure that the finer inclusion details are right, prospective students from under-represented groups will continue to ask, “Do I really belong here?”