The goal of education should not be to achieve uniformity, but rather to build a community that values and respects the uniqueness of every individual. No one knows that better than Phil Gravestock, Dean of Students and Education at the University of Wolverhampton, who has dedicated his career to building an inclusive environment for students.
Phil met with Charles Sin, Co-Host of The Interview, to discuss his journey in Higher Education (HE), the institutional benefits of inclusive practice, and the challenges of getting students involved in equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).
I’m the Dean of Students and Education at the University of Wolverhampton. My role is to bring together elements of the student journey: disability and inclusion, mental health, student well-being, and more. I’m also responsible for our Access and Participation Plan as well as our Teaching Excellence Framework submissions.
I did my PhD in Geosciences at the Open University (OU). Whilst at the OU, I used to work on summer schools, taking students out on field trips. When I moved to teach in another institution, I realised that some of the things we did at the OU, such as supporting disabled students on fieldwork, were not mainstream. I was then lucky enough to be involved in a national project helping disabled students, where I realised that a lot of that work could also be applied to other groups of students. That really inspired me to get involved in student affairs.
A few years ago, we carried out some belongingness surveys, and we’ve just started those up again to see how things compare post-Covid. When students were asked what they thought about belonging, they described it as being like part of a family. One thing we can do is make sure students see themselves reflected on campus — in our staff, the language we use, and so on. At Wolverhampton, we have a very diverse group of students, so we need to make sure they feel their identities are respected.
Post-Covid, we’ve made some changes in our approach to well-being. We’ve noticed students are more willing to talk about how they are feeling, so if we have students who need support, we can make sure they get that. Students faced a lot of challenges during the pandemic: many of them felt isolated when they had to stay at home. But now we’re back open, we are encouraging students to return to campus and benefit from interaction with their peers. We know that students valued the flexibility of our online resources, so we’re making sure those are still available. At the same time, students missed out on a lot of skills when they were out of the classroom. We need to make sure we strike the right balance.
I think inclusion is more important than ever. It means different things to different people, but we need to be aware that things have changed after the pandemic. Everyone went through Covid together, but everyone had a unique experience. There are a lot of issues around mental well-being that aren’t immediately visible. The sector needs to adapt, but so far, the pace of change has been too slow. We’ve made the mistake of trying to fit the students into the university instead of building the university around the students. We need to get away from those old ideas of what students are supposed to look like and meet them where they are. Since 2017, we’ve developed an inclusive framework to help students navigate the curriculum, but we need to move beyond that to make all aspects of student life more inclusive.
Since 2017, we’ve developed an inclusive framework to help students navigate the curriculum, but we need to move beyond that to make all aspects of student life more inclusive.
There are two aspects to that: the school-based approach, and the campus-wide approach. Firstly, we noticed there were different attainment gaps across different academic schools, and that some were a little ahead of others. So each school can apply the framework according to its own particular needs: we didn’t want a one-size-fits-all strategy. Each school appoints its own inclusivity lead to carry out its action plans. One example I like to refer to is developing students’ assessment literacy; we’ve found it has a huge impact on closing attainment gaps at all levels of learning.
We need to be as open and transparent as possible. You need to explain what you’re trying to do and why. Universities often ask students to behave in certain ways, but they do a poor job of explaining their reasoning. We need to improve that communication. Due to our diverse student body, we need to be proactive in enhancing cultural competence. It’s not just about explaining things, but also getting feedback to understand what impact it’s had. Sometimes that discussion can be quite uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to help improve mutual understanding.
We have a lot of global-majority students, and we work hard to support them. So I think that’s where we get the most engagement. I think students are least receptive when they feel like they haven’t been listened to. It all goes back to letting students know what we’re doing to help them.
Don’t make assumptions. You can’t always be worried about saying the wrong thing. It’s all about talking to students and working with them — co-production can be very rewarding, and collaborating with students can open your mind to new perspectives. I’m always learning from them.