Inclusion Includes Discomfort

Pete Quinn

Lead Consultant, AUA Consulting

Pete’s focus is on equality, diversity and inclusion challenges including mental health and wellbeing, talent diversity and inclusive teaching, learning and assessment. Pete has worked on these issues in the UK, Europe, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Over the last year, projects I’ve been working on with universities and colleges include a focus on inclusive practice, inclusive curriculum and whole institution approaches to well-being.

Although inclusive curriculum was an expectation included in the 2017 DfE publication, ‘Inclusive teaching and learning in higher education as a route to excellence ’ it’s unfortunate this was not widely adopted. There is now further opportunity for inclusive practice through both the University Mental Health Charter and the various University and College responses to anti-racism commitments made after the murder of George Flloyd, alongside further awareness of inequity within our communities not least through Covid-19 impacts.

In terms of anti-racism responses, the scrutiny on HE institutions to complement words with action may result in university leadership teams experiencing professional discomfort where progress has not been made since last year and ‘performative allyship’ is suspected.

However, the discomfort experienced by disabled, LGBTQIA+ and black colleagues or students is a lived reality and something allies (people who do not experience discrimination but support those who do) need to encounter and understand to enable a more inclusive approach. It’s also important not to fall in to historical habits of just asking discriminated groups what is needed to remedy the discrimination with no additional resource or recognition of their expertise by experience.

So what can you do in your role to move past the discomfort and support the systemic change to enable inclusion? Here are three suggestions, I’d be pleased to hear yours:

1. Many of the working at home challenges have been accompanied by some resolution of historic inequalities. For example, in meetings, women being spoken over has been somewhat mitigated by ‘hands up’ functions in zoom or teams and captioning has enabled more participation from hearing impaired colleagues. Whether in hybrid form or back on campus, be ready to suggest, support and sustain formalising custom and practice that enables inclusion and prevents these known issues. Many of my project meetings recently have benefitted from good custom and practice being referenced prior to the meeting and at the start as well as amplifying voices not always invited into the discussion. These are fairly commonplace in Equality, Diversity & Inclusion group meetings, but why only there? How can you make inclusive practice happen and with whom do you need to work to do so?

2. Work to decolonise the curriculum is well underway in many universities and colleges. It is for HE leaders to support this challenging work which entails some reflection on privilege and priorities. Beyond the leadership teams, how are you thinking ahead about how to support decolonisation and diversifying in practice? For example, if assessment content and types need to change how will that happen or will an ensuing delay take place to amend regulations and statutes giving the impression of lack of urgency or foresight? Systemic change needs to be taken forward by everyone, not just academic departments.

3. In terms of work on the University Mental Health Charter, employee well-being is an implicit area to focus on. Support systems for students tend to be well provided for and recent initiatives such as Student Minds’ ‘Student Space’ have given additional resources for students to make use of. Some Vice Chancellors have acknowledged the need for this to be a whole institutional focus, for example, the Vice Chancellor at Leeds University wrote at the start of the academic year, “We can’t go on like this. By striving to create an unachievable perfect replica of the past in a volatile, unstable present, we risk doing a disservice to the longer term future of our students and our wider academic communities”.

As we return to campus, whether in hybrid form or otherwise, with the University Mental Health Charter in mind what can we do in our teams to enable well-being to be prioritised? How will your teams learn about how your University or College is aiming to meet or is meeting the Charter aspiration of, “…access to effective, accessible support and proactive interventions to help (employees) improve their own mental health and wellbeing”. This takes on more urgency as we continue to understand the discomfort and impacts on black colleagues who have also been more likely to have been bereaved by Covid-19 as well as the wider implications of ‘Long Covid’ on the wider university staff and student body.

A remarkable effort has taken place to focus on inclusion in the face of a pandemic and the constant change happening in the HE sector. It is clear that we can all do something to support inclusive practice, that this is work for many, not few and that although it is sometimes uncomfortable to achieve, “inclusive” is surely what academic communities should be?

AUA Consulting is a consulting practice ‘of the sector for the sector’.  AUA Consultants are practitioners in higher education administration and management with a depth of experience and professional expertise.   AUA Consulting also offers a team of qualified coaches with expertise in personal, professional and career development.   Our consultants are currently working with institutions in areas including governance, academic administration and student services.  To find out how AUA Consulting can help you and your team, email Read more at AUA Consulting.