In this piece, Dr Claire Bohan, Director of Student Support and Development, explains DCU’s long history of commitment to widening the participation of underrepresented groups in higher education and its ambitious plans for the future.
Widening participation (WP) is about ensuring that the diversity of society is reflected in our university population, and that sectors of society who would not ‘naturally’ look to progress to third level, are provided with the impetus and support to do so.
We know from Higher Education Authority (HEA) data that there are communities currently underrepresented in higher education, such as mature students, Further Education students, students with a disability, students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students who identify as Irish Traveller or Roma and ethnic minorities. At DCU, Widening Participation means actively engaging with underrepresented communities at three stages:
Widening Participation has always been a core part of our DNA. Our founding Governing Authority recognised that DCU’s north Dublin neighbourhood includes some of Ireland’s most socially and economically disadvantaged areas and was determined to make DCU accessible to the local community. In September 1990, six students entered DCU through a scholarship programme that would later become DCU’s Access Programme. We take great pride in how it has grown since then and that it has now supported over 4,200 students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds across Ireland to pursue their dream of higher education.
Yet establishing Ireland’s first Access Programme was really just the beginning of our Widening Participation journey. At DCU, we are always looking to continually improve access to education for all groups in society. We keep a close eye on societal issues and trends and closely examine our student intake to learn from our interventions.
Our Autism Friendly University initiative is a good example of this. Over the past 20 years, children with autism have increasingly entered mainstream primary and secondary schools, and this ‘peak cohort’ is now moving on to third level. At DCU, we realised that universities needed to be better prepared to meet their needs. So, in 2016, we collaborated with AsIAm, Ireland’s national autism charity, on research to identify the specific barriers that autistic students may face in higher education and to recommend solutions. The research culminated in 8 Principles for an Autism Friendly University, which we committed to embed through a 43-point action plan that is now at an advanced stage.
In 2016, we also became Ireland’s first University of Sanctuary, which helped to raise awareness of the barriers to education for students living in Direct Provision, and prompted other universities to follow. We have awarded 38 Scholarships to University of Sanctuary students since then, and will offer 10 more in September 2021.
The last three years have brought significant improvements to the university environment, which have helped autistic students settle into university life, but which have also benefitted the general student body. Some highlights have included introducing an autism awareness-raising week, staff training and the establishment of the world’s first Neurodivergent Society, to address stigma and lack of understanding, which can prevent students from disclosing their diagnosis.
We have certainly seen results, with the number of students disclosing their autism diagnosis doubling from 35 in 2016 to 81 in 2021.
We also developed a new webpage and toolkit for autistic students, which outlines in clear detail what university life will look like in order to take away the anxiety and stress of the ‘unknown and new.’
Once on campus, sensory overload from noise, lights, crowds, smells and navigating large open plan spaces can be overwhelming for autistic students. To address this, we installed three Sensory Pods with support from the Lions Club of Ireland. We also worked with Dr Magda Mostafa, a globally recognised leader in architectural design, to create the world’s first Autism Friendly University Design Guide. This will help us to build with autism in mind in the future, but it also shows we need to invest significantly to adapt our existing buildings, which we are currently seeking philanthropic support to do. A big priority is to create a network of escape spaces where students can remove themselves from the excessive stimulation in order to recalibrate before returning to daily life on campus. These will all be built using Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept which promotes a fully inclusive learning environment and provides an effective framework to improve the learning experience of all students within the mainstream teaching environment.
We are constantly re-examining and re-evaluating our Widening Participation initiatives. We track registrations, progression and completion, constantly asking ourselves what we can do differently and better – and trying to identify gaps in our work. Over the years, we have learnt that:
There are certain key principles that guide our work with all underrepresented groups. For example, adhering to Universal Design for Learning principles, which means that where possible, all our services are mainstreamed and accessible to all, such as our Writing Centre, Maths Learning Centre, Exam Support, Counselling and Health Services.
While there is huge diversity within each student cohort, we would also see certain common challenges.
For example, mature students may struggle with family demands and confidence in their academic ability. To address these, we introduced an Academic Writing Week and Maths Revision week prior to semester beginning for mature students, together with life coaching that allows them to focus on their motivation, goals and potential barriers to success.
With Access students, their specific needs tend to relate to the need for additional funding and a support officer who believes in them and their ability. For students with disabilities, needs also vary, but we would commonly see that supports such as assistive technology, occupational therapy, a personal assistant, a quieter exam venue or additional time to deal with exams, can be a massive help.
Our goal is that diversity simply becomes what we are and do. By design, we should be a university that is accessible to all.
In the future, our vision is that additional supports will only be required for a very small cohort of students, as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) becomes more embedded in all aspects of university life, and that our funding models will allow for much more flexibility in study mode.
However, our vision is a costly one, as UDL requires significant investment in technology, support staff and changes to the built environment.
We will also continue to address inequalities as they arise and put our focus on emerging barriers to education. A current focus in this regard is work to ensure that more students progress from Further Education colleges into DCU. We are working to simplify this process and to build a support framework to help these students progress successfully.
Finally, we hope that our students will carry a deep commitment and understanding of diversity and inclusion from DCU into the workplace – and that our workplaces see opportunity in that diversity.