Mini-series: Practical approaches to embedding access and inclusion into the curriculum

Photo credit: “Barrier” by Nik Stanbridge CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this mini-series post, Rayya Ghul, Lecturer in University Learning and Teaching at the Institute for Academic Development (IAD), provides some starting points for thinking about how to enhance access and inclusion, based on a Practical Strategies session, ‘Embedding access and inclusion in the curriculum’, run by the IAD…

When thinking about how to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of a course, the two biggest issues are often where to start and what to do (that will make a difference).  Access and inclusion are huge topics and the curriculum has many parts.  Without careful thought, initiatives can lead to a piecemeal approach that may not provide a substantially different experience for students.

Be clear on the difference between access and inclusion

Broadly speaking, access refers to the means or possibility to reach places and people, to use or look at something or gain resources without undue impediment.  Inclusion is the act or state of being included within a group or community whereby one experiences a sense of belonging: feeling respected, supported and valued for who you are. However, it is useful to think of the two concepts together because improving access does not necessarily lead to inclusion.

In the words of the civil rights activist, Malcolm X:

Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner. You must be eating some of what’s on that plate.

Having said it’s important to know the difference, the term ‘inclusivity’ is increasingly being used to denote both access and inclusion as an integrated approach.  A report from the HEA (now AdvanceHE) provides a useful guide on how to think about inclusivity in an educational context:

From Hanesworth (2015)

There are three main reasons why Higher Education has had to respond to the need to improve inclusivity (the political or ideological motives for these are beyond the scope of this blog post). These are widening participation, internationalisation and legislation. This has taken place during an unprecedented growth in higher education provision resulting in larger, more diverse cohorts, both in the physical classroom and online.

It’s useful to start by thinking about our legal obligations; why do we have to make the effort to include diverse groups of people? The Equality Act (2010) stipulates that people should not be discriminated against in higher education on the basis of one or more of their ‘protected characteristics’. These are: race; sex; sexual orientation; gender reassignment; marriage or civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; age; religion and belief. None of us would like to think that we are behaving in a discriminatory manner towards an individual or group, but perhaps the curriculum and the way it is delivered is making it harder for certain students to feel included or reach their potential.

Beyond our legal obligations, we should also consider that many of our students are also coming from families and communities where entry to higher education is less established, and they might therefore be unfamiliar with the norms and expectations of the university environment. Certain social and economic backgrounds are well-known to produce potentially lifelong disadvantage, so efforts to improve inclusivity will benefit these students as well.

Finally, there is much talk now of ‘decolonising the curriculum’.  This is a topic too large to discuss fully here, but definitely worth thinking about.  We all have some relationship, benefit and/or disadvantage as part of the UK’s colonial legacy, and many of our international students may come from ex-colonial countries and have a very different relationship to colonialism than ours. Updating our reading lists is a good place to start, but deeper engagement with the curriculum from a decolonising perspective is recommended in the longer term.

Planning for inclusivity across the curriculum

To start the process of thinking about where changes are necessary or desirable, Susan Toohey’s curriculum design model (1999) can provide a good foundation:

Visual representation adapted by Rayya Ghul from Toohey (1999)

Toohey reminds us that all curriculum in Higher Education start from the subject (or professional) discipline. This ‘flavours’ the whole curriculum because, in Higher Education, we are not simply teaching harder material, rather we are inducting the students into a way of thinking about knowledge; what it is (in our discipline), how it is created, evaluated, and applied.  We teach them how to think like a sociologist, view people as a psychologist, experiment like a scientist or create like an artist.  This outcome is then translated into the goals and process of learning, determines the dynamic between teacher and learner, shapes the purpose and methods of assessment, which in turn influence the choice and organisation of the course content, and directs us to consider the resources and infrastructure required to deliver the curriculum.

Using this tool, the following questions can help to guide our critical thinking and planning for inclusivity across the curriculum:

  • Does my discipline privilege certain forms of knowledge over others? Is this always correct/useful/unbiased etc.?
  • Are the outcomes of learning relevant to living and working in a diverse, global world?
  • Are we sure that what we do in the classroom allows everyone to participate equally and feel able to contribute to their and others’ learning?
  • Are the behaviours of staff and students congruent with building a diverse and inclusive learning community?
  • Do all parts of the assessment process make all students confident of fair and unbiased treatment?
  • Do the learning materials and the way they are organised represent a diverse, global world?
  • Are there adequate resources to support a diverse, global curriculum and can all students access them?

When I run the Practical Strategies session, I know that participants are hoping to have an easy checklist to help make their session/s more inclusive.  Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’.  There is a continuum between full inclusivity and stopping at access only, such as providing powerpoints online.  Bear in mind that ‘perfection is the enemy of the good’ (attribution unknown) – you don’t have to get it all right every time.  That is impossible as no cohort or situation will be identical.  However, small changes can make a big difference.

Also see


  • Toohey, S. (1999) Designing Courses for Higher Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Hanesworth, P. (2015) Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: a model for learning and teaching practitioners. York: Higher Education Academy (now AdvanceHE).

Rayya Ghul

Rayya is a National Teaching Fellow and lecturer in University Learning and Teaching. She is based in the Institute for Academic Development where she is the deputy programme director of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice and convenes the course on Accessible and Inclusive Learning. Rayya runs Practical Strategies sessions on embedding access and inclusion into the curriculum and also ways to apply a solution focused approach to supporting students in a variety of roles.

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