Report examines barriers to inclusion experienced by NUI Galway postgraduate students

“In order to improve inclusion, we first had to understand the barriers to inclusion and participation.” – Inclusive Learning at NUI Galway

Researchers at NUI Galway have revealed the lived experience of postgraduate students before and during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the vast majority of students surveyed prior to the pandemic found their learning environment at the University inclusive. Although the proportion dropped during the pandemic.

Members of the Inclusive Learning at NUI Galway project completed the report. This included Dr Shivaun Quinlivan, Dr Lucy-Ann Buckley and Dr Dinali Wijeratne. They set out to enhance inclusive teaching and learning practice at the University. This is for postgraduate students, particularly those from diverse backgrounds.

Welcoming the report, President of NUI Galway spoke out. Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, said: “I am delighted at the launch of this report on inclusive learning at NUI Galway. We have committed in our University Strategy: Shared Vision: Shaped by Values. This is to ensure that our research informs attitudes and policies about diversity and disadvantage. In addition to raising awareness, ultimately removing barriers to equality and diversity within University and for the public good. This report speaks directly to these values and, most importantly, it places the student voice at the centre.”

More than 100 students took part in the first survey in March 2020. Again, in December 2020, more than 100 students took part. The surveys do not claim to be representative or statistically significant. Although they provide a snapshot of the perceptions of a range of students at a particular time.

Key findings from the report:

  • 85% of students surveyed prior to the pandemic said they found their learning environment at NUI Galway inclusive. However, 6% of students did not find it inclusive.
  • 66% of students surveyed during the pandemic found their learning experience to be inclusive. Although 13% did not find it inclusive.
  • Students generally found teaching arrangements pre-Covid to be inclusive. In many cases, staff were praised for their commitment and support, and students emphasised that staff were approachable and helpful.
  • 67% of students said the pandemic had made their learning environment less inclusive, with more female students than male students reporting this.
  • Just 9% of students surveyed pre-Covid saw other students as non-inclusive, while 2% saw teaching staff as non-inclusive.
  • Some students found remote learning more inclusive. E.g. some students with disabilities (though by no means all) found their courses more accessible when teaching went virtual.
  • Students with disabilities raised a range of issues regarding accessibility, including issues relating to physical infrastructure and learning materials. However, they also identified significant positive supports in their learning environment, particularly from the University’s Disability Support Service.
  • The research also found that the lack of suitable and affordable childcare was a major barrier to learning for many postgraduate students who were parents. This had a significant practical and emotional impact.

Many students experienced significant difficulties in securing appropriate and affordable accommodation. Often this was due to general difficulties with the rental market, but the difficulties were particularly acute for international students, particularly those with children.

Students reported a range of attitudinal barriers which impacted their learning environment. These arose largely from negative stereotypes and unfavourable attitudes linked to factors such as gender, race, sexual orientation and disability.

The issue of postgraduate research students doing unpaid work was also identified in the research and the report acknowledges the University is developing a policy on pay related to this.

Dr Quinlivan, joint lead of the project and co-author of the report, said: “In order to improve inclusion, we first have to understand the barriers to inclusion and participation experienced by postgraduate students at NUI Galway.”

Dr Lucy-Ann Buckley, joint project lead and report co-author, said: “We felt it was really important to engage with our students, and hear their voice – this will enable us to take steps to address the issues they face. We hope the lasting legacy of this research will be to improve the learning experience for all our students.”

The report makes a range of recommendations to the university. These include the development of an anti-racism policy and a reasonable accommodation policy for say students with disabilities the provision of training and the gathering and monitoring of student diversity data.

Cameron Keighron, student partner on the project and former Student’s Union Education Officer at NUI Galway, said: “It’s wonderful to see the final report looking at the experiences of postgraduate students in NUI Galway.

This work is allowing their lived experience to influence positive change within our campus.

“We must listen to what systems, policies and attitudes on our campus have led to exclusion or discrimination and put steps in place to change this, with this report giving us a great set of recommendations to begin this journey.”

The National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education funded the report.

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