What does inclusive education look like at a subject level?

As subject benchmark statements are updated, Ailsa Crum discusses embedding inclusive learning in subjects

Ailsa Crum is Director of Membership, Quality Enhancement and Standards at the QAA

There is more than one way to study a subject at degree level. Look across the sector and you will see hundreds of providers offering courses in a range of subjects and though they may have the same overarching disciplinary focus, it is likely that there will be considerable variation in the way these subjects are taught and assessed.

While providers may take different approaches to supporting students to successfully complete their degree in many subject areas, there is an overarching expectation of the nature of study, and the benchmark academic standards that students will achieve. This expectation is articulated through Subject Benchmark Statements.

First published by QAA more than 20 years ago, they provide a picture of what graduates in a particular subject discipline might reasonably be expected to know, do, and understand at the end of their studies.

They play an important role in course planning and design, in the revalidation of existing programmes, and as a reference point for external examiners and professional, statutory, and regulatory bodies (PSRBs).

Each statement is drafted by expert advisory groups drawn from across the subject community and undergoes extensive sector consultation.

Making a statement

Since those early days, statements have adapted to the demands and requirements of higher education as the sector has undergone significant change and transformation.

Sector consultation at the beginning of our latest review cycle in 2020 reinforced the value of Subject Benchmark Statements for academic communities whilst highlighting a need for these statements to address some of the wider social justice concerns that higher education institutions face.

To support these agendas, both new and revised statements will consider the ways in which the disciplines address wider social goals specifically in relation to equality, accessibility, sustainability, and enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Developing inclusive learning subject communities is a process of cultural change and takes time. It includes developing teaching and learning environments that reflect subject communities’ distinctive approaches with the aim of creating an inclusive experience for students whatever their starting point and irrespective of the subject discipline they are studying.

To achieve this there needs to be a horizontally inclusive approach at a subject level to support the vertically inclusive approach at an institutional level. Subject Benchmark Statements have an important role to play in driving this change – they offer opportunities for colleagues in subject areas to focus on what inclusivity means to them in their communities.

Defining an inclusive vision

So how did we get there? Elizabeth Cleaver and Mike McLinden were engaged by QAA to design a series of workshops for the advisory groups that explored the role of inclusive practice in the subject communities.

Drawing on five guiding principles for embedding inclusivity in the curriculum, the workshops supported subject advisory groups to examine, debate, and define the knowledge, practice, and behaviour that forms the foundation of inclusive learning communities within their respective discipline.

From there, each advisory group developed a “vision statement” that draws upon and uses a subject lens to consider what inclusive programmes and related teaching and learning practice can and should mean in the context of their subject community.

These vision statements were then incorporated into the text of the subject benchmarks, both in a discrete section and embedded throughout.

Our collaboration with the Disabled Students’ Commission also helped subject advisory groups to clarify how the language of the statements could support the needs of disabled students – as part of this, the commission reviewed and provided feedback on each of the statements as well as producing a framework on Disabled Student Inclusion for the next suite of subject benchmarks.

Whilst inclusivity at a subject level will look slightly different between disciplines, there are some basic principles, derived from the work of Pauline Hanesworth, from which the inclusivity lens of the Subject Benchmark Statements has been formed. They articulate a vision for the creation of (physical and virtual) environments and learning experiences in which:

  • all students are given the opportunity to reach their potential, and in which no student is automatically disadvantaged by teaching practices and curricula
  • all students feel a sense of belonging, do not feel isolated or excluded, and have an opportunity to be engaged and to act as partners
  • all students are given the opportunity to expand their knowledge and understanding of different cultures and identities in a disciplinary relevant manner
  • students of different backgrounds, groups, and identities have the opportunity to interact in a collaborative and collegial space to learn from each other
  • staff and students have the opportunity to reflect on their own identities, biases, and backgrounds and how these impact on student learning experiences.

Ultimately, inclusivity at a subject level seeks to promote equality of opportunity for all learners whilst identifying and addressing any potential barriers to learning and participation. In doing so, subject communities should also seek opportunities to foster a culture of fairness, equity, and social justice among learners, in turn preparing them to make a positive contribution to the increasingly global, diverse, and socially conscious workplaces and societies which they will enter upon graduation.

An important challenge for the sector is how to enable a broad range of students (and staff) to feel they belong, can participate in and contribute to their subject community.

Although they are now produced in our capacity as a membership organisation, our Subject Benchmark Statements continue to be publicly available – reflecting their relevance and interest to an audience beyond QAA membership, including PSRBs and employers.

We also produce short summaries of each statement which may serve as a helpful overview of what to expect from university study in a specific discipline for current or prospective students. The latest Statements will be available on our website following their launch on 30 March.

The work on Subject Benchmark Statements is part of QAA’s wider commitment to supporting our members to develop inclusive learning communities. As one of the key membership themes for this academic year, we have also published guidance and supporting resources on this topic, and next month we will publish a new edition of our Quality Compass series focusing on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion.

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