Inclusion: the compass of higher education

George Koutsouris, Lauren Stentiford and Tricia Nash

Inclusion is a matter widely discussed in higher education (HE). However, our previous research has indicated that it is often treated superficially and in ways that do not translate into educational reform, with the danger being that it is reduced to academic ‘chatter’. We recently conducted a new piece of research to analyse inclusion policies of elite Russell Group universities and found that inclusion was generally approached across institutions as a quality and performance index to enhance a university’s global reputation and its ability to attract students as ‘consumers’ and staff as an employer. However, there should be a recognition that inclusion is linked to the very purposes of HE – or that it can, at least, challenge narrow perceptions of these purposes.

We were given a further opportunity to reflect on these issues through our involvement with the SPISEY (Supporting Practices for Inclusive Schooling & Education for Youth) project, an Erasmus+ project with partners from Denmark, Finland, France, Spain and the UK. The project examined ways of fostering social inclusion in participating schools in the five countries, building on the Inclusion Compass, a management tool originally designed in the Danish context. The plan was for all countries to recruit primary and secondary schools in the different countries and work with the compass to initiate discussions and guide planning for inclusion. However, Covid-19 impacted these initial plans, with partner countries having to seek alternatives. The UK team found itself with very limited access to schools during the period 2020-21. Through collaborative discussion, we decided to conduct the study within our own institution, thus translating the aims and focus of the project to inclusion in HE.

As part of the project, we conducted a survey, workshops, one to one interviews and focus groups with students, academics and professional staff to discuss ideas about inclusion and how the Inclusion Compass could be used to guide thinking and planning about inclusion. The main findings of our pilot were:

  • The Inclusion Compass was seen as an incentive to discuss matters of inclusion
  • These discussions gave an opportunity for students and staff to build a closer relationship
  • The use of Inclusion Compass highlighted that students should have a voice on matters of inclusion and that their voice matters for the institution
  • Openness to debate matters of inclusion and understanding (or lack thereof) of cultural differences was seen as an important challenge for inclusion
  • The main components of the Inclusion Compass were seen as already in place at the university (for example, the Transformative Education project), but that the model could be useful when identifying gaps in provision
  • The Inclusion Compass could guide leadership and decision-making in what communities to involve when planning around inclusion
  • The use of the Inclusion Compass was expected to vary not just between one institution and another but also between different departments of the same institution – in the sense that inclusion was seen as context-dependent and locally negotiated


We found that all groups of people we discussed with were very open to debate matters of inclusion. Inclusion was perceived to be one of the most important issues in the institution – one that expands across teaching and learning, curriculum and the learning environment, and the ethos of the institution. This is also the result of recent and global political and social movements that have gained traction within universities, such as Decolonising the Curriculum, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. All these factors made our project particularly timely.

Being able to engage in discussions about inclusion using frameworks such as the Inclusion Compass that promote stakeholder engagement has the potential to challenge superficial treatments of inclusion. The SPISEY project and, in a way, Covid-19 gave us the unexpected opportunity to debate matters of inclusion in challenging and fast-changing times; and as this was an Erasmus project, UK institutions have now a lot fewer opportunities to engage in such discussions with partners from Europe. We hope that projects like SPISEY can help to spark further discussion and reinforce how inclusion should be seen as the very compass of HE – not just an empty word used to satisfy legal requirements or achieve promotional purposes.

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