In this Mini-series in Peer Learning and Support post, Dr Robyn Pritzker, Peer Learning Coordinator, and Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin, Peer Support Coordinator, highlight some of the most pressing access concerns that they are facing in creating new schemes and developing support for current programmes…
One of the missions of the Peer Learning and Support team is to provide every first year who matriculates into the University with access to our schemes. This particular goal necessitates a bit of clarification over what constitutes “access,” a nebulous concept applicable to everything from mobility to funding to communications strategies and beyond. Providing “access” to schemes, in the first place, means that for every first year, a group must be fully-formed and active, with coordinators and Student Leaders, a plan for the academic year, which is relevant to that student, either with regards to their identities or to their academic programme. Past this point, another several layers of accessibility (or lack thereof) open up: there are more ways to be denied access than might be immediately obvious.
Physical access is perhaps one of the most visible of these layers. Ensuring inclusivity – that sessions, meetings, and resources are available to all students, disabled, non-disabled, at any level of mobility, from any neurodiverse backgrounds – is a priority for both Peer Learning and Support and the wider Students’ Association. Enhancing digital or multi-platform options for Peer Learning and Support can be a part of this, such as shaping virtual learning environments to include peer-driven spaces, or other technology-enhanced tools promoting accessibility and community support.
Similarly, this year, 204 students applied to the first round of the Participation Grant, an opportunity for students facing access barriers to societies, sports clubs, and intramural sports to try and break some of those walls down. Yet, the overwhelming scope, breadth, and sheer number of such opportunities during a student’s time at university can provide its own set of access issues and barriers. When compared with the almost 300 societies that students can take part in, as well as sports and other activities, Peer Learning and Support schemes can be an afterthought, leaving students feeling reluctant to get involved.
This hesitation illuminates a unique set of access issues, as we can often find that students are reluctant to engage with Peer Learning and Support schemes until they need urgent help. Uptake in sessions towards the middle to the end of the semester tend to be the most popular and well-attended. Further, students unfamiliar with the schemes may then attend sessions expecting that they will be taught remedial content in a lecture style, which is the antithesis of the PALS model. Ensuring that students engage early, and are able to develop, and build upon, their knowledge and understanding of their course content is key. Not being aware of extra support options, or not feeling that you belong in such spaces, is connected to larger practical access issues facing students with caring responsibilities, part-time students or those balancing multiple roles within or beyond the University.
One ongoing aspect of the Peer Learning and Support programme is the expansion of our School Senior Leader (SSL) posts: this is a paid member of staff working to widen participation, coordinate different schemes, and ensure staff members are aware of and championing the Schemes in their school. Student Leaders and SSLs are also responsible for facilitating safe and open conversations about how best to actively ensure LGBTQ+ inclusivity, antiracist, and anticolonial praxis is in place in sessions and meetings, as well as how these areas intersect. Part of facilitation is ensuring all students have a chance to speak openly without fear of judgement, and the Peer Learning and Support framework we use is drawn from democratic and liberation-focussed theories of pedagogy, institutional change, and community organisation.
Part of our Peer Learning and Support transformations include constantly educating ourselves on how we can better provide support, and this is a dynamic, shifting balance between learning from the past and anticipating future challenges. Sara Ahmed (2016) has argued that shortcomings and weaknesses in issues of access or inclusion are all the more reason to keep working on a project focussed on institutional change. In her words, rather than being discouraged by inequalities, those who have the power to fight for access “have to keep trying because it is not working” (p. 98, emphasis ours). The Peer Learning and Support team is certainly going to keep trying, but in everything, we are following students’ leads.
Ahmed, S. (2016). Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press.