According to the Universities UK, in 2020, 20.7% of the student population in the UK will be international. The figure below shows that international postgraduate students outnumber their undergraduate counterparts by three times. Since then, the numbers have grown to the largest ever recorded; the Universities UK opine that this latest increase is part of the post-COVID pandemic recovery https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/universities-uk-international/explore-uuki/international-student-recruitment/international-student-recruitment-data.
Figure 1 - 2020 Universities UK breakdown of the international student population
Thus, it has become imperative for the UK higher education sector to adapt or create strategies to deal with the changing demographic and numbers we have seen in the last decade. As learned colleagues, many of us may have come across the concept of inclusive partnerships- some of which have created themes around “students as partners (SaP)” (Mercer-Mapstone et al., 2017). Simply put, by engaging more with our students about what I call the 4Ws and the 1H, we can learn the following: Where do students wish to learn? What do students want to learn? Why do students want to learn? Who do students want to learn from? How do students want to learn? This approach allows their opinion and experiences to feed into how we adapt our current modules, courses, or programmes to our service users (the students) in higher education now and in future. While this is widely accepted through student evaluations annually, sometimes, academic staff are restricted by several factors, which could be personal or administrative. However, for each scenario, we can begin to find little ways to adapt minute changes to reflect any feedback we get from our students. However, before we talk about this partnership process, we must consider if most of our international students understand the impact of their feedback. From my observation and experiences, several international students tend to come from backgrounds were:
- Module and teaching evaluations were never requested from students but only asked from module/course leaders during their staff reviews/evaluations (if present)
- These students often grew up in a system where all teaching was didactic (simply put, the academic staff is considered “the source of all knowledge”), and hardly ever student lead or centred or flipped-based education. Thus, these international students are embarking on several “journeys of change” to the UK academic system and the UK society.
- Even if these international students adapt to the changes, having to engage in already intensive programmes and deadlines leave them little chance to be vocal or express their observations of their programmes in a way that feeds future development
- Lastly but not least, several are still not convinced the processes for giving constructive feedback are anonymous or would reflect the backgrounds.
To this end, we must understand the definitions of these popular terms we now use in the educational sector and the UK society. First, we must talk about diversity and inclusion. I decided to consult the dictionary to see how they define these two terms. The Oxford Languages dictionary, freely available on Google, defines diversity as “the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.”. The key word that stuck out for me here was “involving”. Inclusion is defined as “the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalised, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups”. The key phrase that stuck out to me here was “providing equal access”. Yet, when examining the synonyms for both words, “involvement” seems to be a shared theme. Yet, as some know, diversity and inclusion are very different. We can confidently say a place or classroom is diverse, but if it is inclusive will be left to the interpretation of every sub-group represented in such instances. We cannot begin discussing inclusive partnerships if we do not know what “inclusion” truly means. Several articles exist, but I think this one I came across by Workable Technologies Limited (2022) may suffice for this write-up. Their definition of inclusion is “procedures organisations implement to integrate everyone in the workplace, allowing their differences to coexist mutually beneficial. Inclusion strategies aim to make everyone feel accepted and comfortable, ready to share their opinions and thoughts without hesitation.” Having read this definition, can we say we have been 100% inclusive? Perhaps not if we are brutally honest, but the goal here is to hopefully get us on a pathway to reflect on our practices and make some changes starting with ourselves to it is sincere when we adjust our teaching style and materials towards true inclusion.
Mann (2021) describes inclusive partnerships as “utilising a membership model that ensures adequate representation while simultaneously exploring member differences and searching for solutions that transcend individual capacities”. They further surmise that inclusive partnerships are built upon shared principles, values, visions, and goals that are “people focused”, recognising that holistic approaches to problem-solving are needed at all hierarchical levels because the relationships involved are grounded in a foundational framework of voluntary collaboration rather than hierarchical control. An inclusive partnership can be run using different typologies. Still, for educational-based purposes, I opine that the action-based approach, which takes in much of the involvement of our students from the ground up, is the best way to go if we are looking at including our students as partners in the course or module development. The policy-based approach of inclusive partnership tends to take a downstream approach from the higher-level partners (e.g., senior university management, educational research bodies, national student bodies etc.)- we see this via the recent “decolonising the curriculum” efforts across the UK. This article by Rowena Arshad (2021) may help for some light reading around the concept https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/decolonising-curriculum-how-do-i-get-started. There is also the organisational approach of inclusive partnerships- I opine that these are where the “middle management” or intermediate members, e.g., HODs, educational administrators etc., can create local level influence by linking the efforts of more senior members in an inclusive partnership with those who deal with the day-to-day activities in the classroom, e.g., the lecturers and their students and vice versa. I will not say it’s a clear unidirectional pathway, but the inclusive partnership could be described as bidirectional or, better still, cyclic.
In conclusion, I outline some tips that have worked in my observations with staff and students when it comes to inclusive partnerships:
Tips for students
- Always participate in the mid or end-of-year feedback evaluation of modules and their teaching staff- yes, while most of the points raised may benefit future cohorts, filling these in as much as possible with constructive feedback will help improve courses and programmes to come.
- Be prepared to be open to the realities and challenges within some of your established programs and how your academic staff are trying to make the best of what is available.
- Be prepared to learn things outside your comfort zone. The UK higher education system is one of the best in the world; as such, you may be utilising equipment or methods you have not used before. Learn as many skills as possible to pave the way for a better and more versatile future. Engage with the process and shift towards a transformative than a defensive stance.
- If you wish to give minor feedback anonymously before formal opportunities, you can speak with your course representatives to provide these in clear written points as a summary from several class members.
- You can give feedback to your tutors/lecturers- some can influence minor changes even before the course ends, e.g., how classwork is run or the time allocations for Q and A etc.
Tips for staff
- Always ask for feedback as much as possible. This allows you to collate any minor changes you can begin improving before formal avenues to do so occur. E.g. when I first started postgraduate teaching, my first set of students were quick to inform me as soon as I requested constructive feedback about how being stationed in the room scared some or how the room was quite odd for their learning. Of course, I began moving around as much as possible and changing how we did classwork weekly.
- Be honest with your class about what you can or cannot do. However, try to signpost and, importantly, follow up to ensure that the student has found the necessary support required for them to feel included in your classroom.
- Don’t assume all staff or students know what you know. Remind all as often as possible or signpost to detailed, accessible materials that should keep all informed.
- Have multiple ways of collating feedback and assessments, so each sub-group has “equitable” chances for success, not just “your favourites” or the more dominant or vocal groups in the class.
- Many international students are coupled with extra responsibilities that many home students do not have to be burdened with, fortunately. Some may be the breadwinners of their families, must work part-time to afford their upkeep as they don’t have recourse to public funds, have extra responsibilities of keeping up with immigration or left their families behind in unstable political or economic climes etc. all of which could come with extra worry, and anxiety or additional distress to their wellbeing. You can make your assessments/tasks fewer, more transparent, and time-sensitive and avoid clashes with that from other modules.
- Representation matters! Getting assistance across your department/school within your teaching or classwork may help students engage better. E.g. there were times when some of my previous students didn’t open up to me because I was not from the same ethnic or gender background as they were. Fortunately, I had the intuition and got someone for each side I knew could get them to share how we can help their learning experience better, given their conditions. Their moods improved significantly after said interventions.
- Suppose something feels odd that your sixth sense may warn about; best to enquire from representatives in your classroom or department to know more or read more about it. If unsure, leave that out or don’t mention it. If the error has happened, apologise, and take note for the future.
- Try to ensure that your curriculum is as inclusive as possible with examples from the different sub-groups that tend to be present in the general population today.
There are several other points to add to these lists, but in all, speaking out or writing your thoughts or suggestions out for discussion or feedback brings it to light and allows it to mould improvement for true inclusive partnerships. Without this feedback, most programmes or schools miss out on incredible opportunities that could impressively transform their efforts. Also, a lot of painstaking patience and longsuffering are required. I am still getting used to the concept of inclusive partnership as the approach varies by cohort, but it’s satisfying when we see our students finish well and are satisfied. It remains an ongoing journey, and each should be catalogued in an encyclopaedia from which we could all draw knowledge and applications in our academic journeys.
- Mercer-Mapstone, L., Dvorakova, S.L., Matthews, K.E., Abbot, S., Cheng, B., Felten, P., Knorr, K., Marquis, E., Shammas, R. and Swaim, K. (2017). A systematic literature review of students as partners in higher education. International Journal for Students as Partners, 1(1).
- Moore-Cherry, N., Healey, R., Nicholson, D.T. and Andrews, W. (2016). Inclusive partnership: Enhancing student engagement in geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 40(1), pp.84-103.
- Mann, J.L., (2021). Inclusive Partnerships: A Key to Achieving Sustainable Development. Partnerships for the Goals, pp.565-576.