Getting diverse students and staff to talk about integration on campus, and what they say when they do: A UK-India collaborative case study.
This paper reports the early stages of a UKIERI-funded project, ‘Widening Participation: Diversity, isolation or integration in Higher Education?’.The project is concerned with greater equity, social justice, community and social cohesion within the current globalised, market oriented context of higher education (HE), and with enabling students to be better prepared for, and thrive in social networks and work-related arenas which are increasingly diverse, multicultural, interdependent and global. The main aim of this 3 year project is to explore the nature of social cohesion, integration and separation, diversity, equality and discrimination experienced by diverse, minority, disadvantaged and under-represented students attending HE in UK and India. Group stereotypes are often subconsciously held, emerging into consciousness only when they appear confirmed or confounded by personal experience or public events. Where there is little knowledge or personal experience then reliance upon group stereotypes is more likely (Kunda & Thagard, 1996). This can impact upon student and staff expectations of, responses to, and interactions with each other. Individual students’ experiences and perceptions lie at the core of this project, but the ultimate purpose is to illuminate our understanding as to how these are mediated, shaped and formed, in relation to and in interaction with the structures and contextual features of the educational environments in which they, as students, are located. It is thus framed by socio-cultural rather than psychological or therapeutic theories and is located within a social-constructivist perspective (Moore, 2000). Social constructivism facilitates the development of improved understandings of educational and social environments that shape rather than determine individual dispositions towards social diversity encountered on campus. It is highly suited to the understanding of perceptions, and exploring resonances with actions, reactions and interactions. The initial stage of this project involved inviting students and staff (academic and support staff) from five HE colleges and universities in England and India to keep a record (written and photographic) of what for them seemed to be important and relevant events relating to what they saw, heard, did and experienced on campus for a period of 1 month, in teaching, learning and social situations; namely interactions in classes and social settings; what seem to be good experiences and what seem to be negative ones; how and if their particular knowledge and experiences were used, valued and incorporated into their HE experience and learning or how they were negated. A sample size of 90 record keepers was sought across the participating institutions. Getting that sample presented significant difficulties to all but one of the participating institutions, and raised questions about • the methods initially adopted, • the general willingness of students and staff to address and share issues relating to diversity, equality, social cohesion and integration on HE campuses with researchers • cultural differences in accessing respondents to take part in the research Additional data collection methods were adopted and by January 2009 the intended sample size almost met. This paper will address the problems encountered in undertaking the first stage of this research and present initial findings from the data that were eventually obtained.