Widening participation and social mobility applies to university staff as well as students

As Paul Greatrix recently argued (in Academics and administrators: No more ‘us and them‘) there are many concerns regarding a division in some parts of higher education between academics and administrators (also referred to as professional services staff, support staff or non-academic staff).

This form of cultural division is often reported among academics too, with regard to titles, perceived status of activities, workload and responsibilities. So, while I echo these “us and them” concerns, I would also extend them.

Inclusivity on campus

Indeed, I would go further still, to question whether institutional divisions among staff might also be examined in connection to broader widening participation (WP), inclusivity and social mobility agendas. By this I mean turning the gaze inward, to ask some probing questions in our institutions about “intellectual participation” (IP, if you like, as we do love our initialisms).

Are we, perhaps inadvertently, cultivating and reinforcing barriers to social mobility across groups of university staff who may also, at certain times in their lives, hold the status of “student”? If we are intent on meeting the needs of all students and are concerned with their mental health and wellbeing then our staff are often among these numbers, given that many universities also employ their own students. In this respect, the Office for Students (OfS) has some overlap as an Office for Students that are Staff (OfStaS perhaps?). OK, I won’t push that one too far.

I will ask instead: are some colleagues being shut out from IP, as potentially transformative education in their own institution, due to the effects of being treated as if they were “below stairs”?

We are not “all pulling in the same direction”….but we could be

I have to disagree initially with the comment that we are “all pulling in the same direction”. We are not. It would be great if we were, but the economic context surrounding universities tends to drive individual, rather than collective, agendas. In this respect, there is no discrimination between academic and professional staff – as all are generally subject to more isolation from each other than they used to be. Few universities can these days boast staff common rooms, yet colleagues can still be heard reminiscing about the days when they had both space (and time) to meet with each other to collaborate. It is not enough though to seek to address the wellbeing of staff by creating isolated (sometimes patronising) activities intended to force connections with each other. Something more fundamental is needed.

Hearing each other’s voices

That something relates to an authentic inclusivity concerning people’s intellectual capacity to learn and to “narrate things about themselves” to others. When this is lost, it moves us towards treating people as if they are not human. As a researcher of HE policy, I have published on the de-humanising discourse of many HE institutional strategies that omit references to human labour. It is not therefore surprising to me that, as we enact these strategies, a dehumanising strategy may translate into dehumanising practices towards each other.

But all is not lost. If we can emphasise listening to the “student voice”, then we can also make room for the diverse voices of staff. Nick Couldry notes:

Voice is inseparable from two other things: a need to understand the wider material conditions in which voice occurs, or does not (levels of inequality, structures of access to resources and power); and a need to register the complexities of individual and collective voice.

What this suggests to me is that there is a case for including concerns about inequalities among staff in sector-wide WP agendas. WP concerns representation of diverse groups in our HE institutions and for me this is about hearing all of their voices, not just accommodating them in our lecture theatres and departmental offices.

A deficit in the widening participation agenda?

Just as student retention, progression and achievement is a continually evolving area within higher education, so is the employment, development and retention of staff. These are not separate concerns, but intimately intertwined. Many university departments now support the transition, wellbeing and future destinations of our students. This work sits alongside learning analytics, academic interventions and personal tutoring.

With so much attention focused in these areas, surely any toleration of discriminatory practices, or a lack of WP for our staff, ought to be questioned under the same banners we uphold for students? Not least because such dynamics may affect how staff respond to supporting students. In 20 years within HE, like many colleagues, I have held diverse roles including that of a student, alongside full-time work. Today’s administrator may become tomorrow’s academic, and vice versa. Given that we are now prepared to educationalise almost any social issue into HE, I argue that we should prioritise concerns regarding inequalities amongst staff, as we would for our students, and seek routes that enable IP for all.

Intellectual participation (IP) for all who support learning

At Aston University, we have developed an inclusive approach towards academic practice in the Centre for Learning, Innovation and Professional Practice (CLIPP) which disrupts and transcends divisions between categories of staff. Like many institutions we run a range of UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) based accredited development courses. These range from our Introduction to Learning and Teaching Practice (ILTP), through to our PG Cert for HE, PG Diploma (PGDip) and Masters in Higher Education (MEd). These taught programmes are provocative and strongly participatory but, perhaps more importantly still, they enable groups of academics and those with diverse roles across professional services to build a lasting, shared critical pedagogical community. This consolidates, rather than undermines, individual professional identities, often drawing on autoethnographic techniques and various forms of creativity.

These interactions build strong, diverse, collaborative networks across the university, in line with the UKPSF, which concern “respecting individual learners and diverse learning communities” and “promoting participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners”. Reflecting UKPSF value 4, “acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice” we have enrolled Directors from our IT Service, Quality, Employability, Learning Development Centre, Library and programme administrators to participate alongside Lecturers, Senior Lecturers, Readers, Teaching Fellows, Research Fellows, research students and even surgeons.

Staff share anecdotes with us that this community has given them a “voice”, helped them locate “a golden thread” and provided them with the “fuel” they need to establish similar practices with their students. This approach takes time, when the HE sector has become rather fond of the “quick fix” in policy rhetoric. However, it is time worth investing, to build committed, self-reflexive staff, empowered by a greater understanding of each other’s roles and challenges, having shared an intimacy that lasts well beyond our taught programmes.

Why does this matter for institutions?

As others have pointed out, the near future is bringing significant new challenges concerning the “fourth industrial revolution”, and there have been calls to harness our collective creativity. Many universities are looking to set themselves apart by demonstrating how they are distinctive, amid unprecedented change in the sector. But all their websites point to features of their reputation, campus and facilities, student accommodation, initiatives leading to an “exceptional” experience, and desirable graduate attributes. The list goes on.

Few seem to look to the people themselves who constitute the university, often bringing to work immense creativity beyond their day job, which only comes to light in a critically reflexive learning context. The real identity of a university depends on the rich diversity of its community of people. I suggest a powerful transformation awaits institutions, if we are prepared to listen to the voices “within”.

4 responses to “Widening participation and social mobility applies to university staff as well as students

  1. Bringing academic and professional services staff together for shared learning works exceptionally well. The Cert-Dip-MEd programmes through CLIPP break down perceived barriers and bring staff from diverse parts of a University into regular contact, ensuring that they learn from each other in a confidential environment. Thank you for bringing the concept of widening partcipation into a far broader context. All too often, the WP argument is raised around the socio-economic backgrounds of students, but it is refreshing to see this now discussed within a wider context. Developing ideas around how a University staffing model may look in the future will of course only benefit students further.

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