Mini-series: The importance of diversifying the curriculum: Reflections from the Senate Task Group

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This first post of the mini-series in ‘Promoting inclusion, equality and diversity in the curriculum’ is written by Diva Mukherji, Vice President Education at Edinburgh University Students’ Association. Diva introduces the work of the University’s task group, which was set up to explore how diversifying the curriculum could be foregrounded as an institutional priority, rather than just a tick box exercise…

Diversifying the curriculum simply means expanding the curriculum to be inclusive and intersectional, including academics and readings from underrepresented backgrounds. Having a diverse curriculum is essential to highlight the often ignored contributions of marginalised people in academia, and being critical of historically dominant narratives. This doesn’t involve creating an entirely new canon overnight, but rather involves learning about different perspectives and developing the canon even further.

In 2016, the Students’ Association, led by their Liberation Campaigns, created ‘LiberatEd’, a campaign to create an intersectional, inclusive and empowering curriculum at the University of Edinburgh. The campaign hosted workshops across the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, to better understand how students perceive and understand their curricula. The response, supported by feedback from various workshops carried out since then, is that many students find an unrepresentative curriculum both alienating and outdated.

Over the past few years, universities across the UK have been acknowledging the work led by BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students, and are better understanding the necessity of a diverse and representative curriculum. In 2018, the Senate Learning and Teaching Committee task group, “Promoting inclusion, equality and diversity in the curriculum”, was created to address these concerns. The membership of the group spanned all three colleges, academics and professional services, and created a space for holistic discussions about this to occur. In my role as Students’ Association Vice-President Education, I was invited to be a member of this task group.

Our main question considered how diversifying the curriculum could be highlighted as an institutional priority, while ensuring the issue doesn’t get transformed into a tick box exercise. Moreover, diversifying the curriculum isn’t limited to expanding reading lists. While reading lists play an important part in this conversation, diversifying the curriculum also looks at learning spaces, forms of assessment and support for marginalized communities. These elements contribute to creating a more holistic understanding of how marginalised students experience University. Academic content being representative is important, but it needs to be in combination with a safe and inclusive learning environment.

The task group’s report highlights examples of best practice across the University, which demonstrates the fantastic work which is already ongoing. From the LGBT+ inclusive curriculum developed by staff and students for the Medicine curriculum, to the School of Divinity including a question about an inclusive curriculum in their Board of Studies processes, there is a variety of tactics that can be employed to create this change. For this work to continue, and have a meaningful impact, this work needs to occur at a school and discipline-specific level, supported by the central University leadership.

A “diverse” curriculum in ECA looks very different to one in Physics and Astronomy, and it’s essential to recognise, and support this. This also highlights the importance of this work being conducted by staff and students in partnership, and an evolving project. The resources of best practice collected by the task group also outline the importance of comprehensive unconscious bias training. Students from marginalised groups have cited the prevalence of microaggressions as a barrier to feeling comfortable in learning spaces, from lectures to labs. But what is essential is a shift in the way in which we think about supporting our marginalised communities at the University, and how we create an inclusive and supportive environment.

Often the starting point for this work is acknowledging there is an issue. Universities are often perceived as progressive spaces which are exempt from social stratification. This, of course, is not true. So it is essential to acknowledge that discrimination, both direct and unconscious, does occur, and can have a serious impact on staff and students belonging to marginalised groups. The importance of diversifying the curriculum, and the University, is one which begins with a discursive shift in the way we think about marginalised groups, and the University more broadly.

The Students’ Association Liberation Campaigns have been leading these conversations for years, and have sometimes been met with huge criticism. Research shows that there is a national BME attainment gap; that marginalised groups experience a “leaky pipeline” at different levels throughout University. It’s clear that an unrepresentative and unsupportive curriculum can have tangible impact on the trajectories of marginalised groups. As a part of the University community, it’s our responsibility to reduce the impact of these phenomena as much as possible.

It’s been a great experience to be a part of this task group, and see the University take a stand on this issue, but this work needs to go beyond centralised communications. For this to be a meaningful change, it requires sustained input from every member of the University community over several years. This is a dynamic project, and needs to be regularly updated and discussed, while ensuring the experiences of marginalised communities at the heart of these discussions.

Diva Mukherji

Diva Mukherji is the current Vice President Education at Edinburgh University Students’ Association. She studied Sociology and Social Anthropology at the University, and held the position of Black and Minority Ethnic Officer in 2017/18.

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