Access Student Focus Groups
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“Inclusion means I’m expected, I’m welcome and I belong here” - Access Student Voices on Inclusion in UCD
In November 2021 our University for All Seminar focused on the student role in University for All and we heard from three of our UCD Access Leaders and inclusion advocates on the importance of understanding the student experience of inclusion in UCD. This semester we have continued to focus on giving students a platform to share their experiences through a number of programme-specific focus groups. These focus groups are part of our University for All implementation and are organised in collaboration with UCD’s Widening Participation (WP) Leads, who are working hard in their respective programme areas to action a number of inclusion-focused initiatives.
The University for All student focus groups are facilitated by the University for All project team in close collaboration with our WP Leads. WP Leads work with the team to agree areas of focus and specific questions, often following on from University for All programme workshops where issues are raised and warrant further discussion. The results of the focus groups are shared with Widening Participation Leads and their local change teams. All output is anonymised to ensure students feel fully comfortable sharing their experiences. The output is being used in the planning and development of various projects including provision of supports and development of programmes. We have found a high level of enthusiasm among students to participate and an openness in the groups to share experiences which can help to shape future actions. Despite the many demands of students’ time we have been able to recruit students from across all access groups including students with disabilities, low-income students, further education awardees, mature students, part-time students and sanctuary students.
In all of the focus groups we have carried out students were all asked what inclusion meant to them and the answers we received were common amongst groups and remarkable in the simplicity of what students would like to experience in UCD.
- Representation - students commented on the desire to see others who looked like them or were from similar backgrounds. Representation of diversity not just among the student population but also faculty and professional staff is very important to students and makes a significant difference to whether students feel included in the UCD community.
- Expectation - students wanted to feel as though they were expected in UCD, that we as a community are not surprised by seeing diversity on campus. The way we talk to students about their backgrounds can make or break a student’s confidence in their studies in UCD. We hear the same example time and again - when we talk to students about their Leaving Certificate points or make assumptions about the perceived homogeneous student population, those who don’t identify with these remarks are othered and experience long-term and worsening imposter syndrome.
- Communication - students praised faculty, staff and services who communicated well whether by email, phone, in person or through provision of information on websites or Brightspace. Lack of communication or response was the most common source of stress and feelings of exclusion reported by students in the focus groups. Proactive communication from faculty who reached out to simply say “I’m here if you need me, please reach out if you have a question” meant many students, who didn’t even reach out for support, had an overwhelming sense of comfort as a result of this. Experiences were not consistent though and students repeatedly stressed one key message - please respond to emails.
- Support - students noted the importance of support and the positive role supports have played in their inclusion in UCD. Students with disabilities spoke very positively about the support they have received and also spoke of the challenges when these supports are not provided consistently across their modules. The importance of understanding the different needs of students was underscored by students who talked about avoiding a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach given the diversity of student needs across all access groups.
When asked about challenges to inclusion students noted the need for an emphasis on affordability in all aspects of university life, with accommodation being discussed as an example of an insurmountable barrier for some. Students also spoke of the need to create deeper social connections with their peers and the difficulty of this while they learned remotely. Finally, students this semester emphasised the challenges of the return to campus and the lack of consistency across modules in terms of provision of recordings and materials. Many students had experienced illness and few were able to catch up with missed material where recordings were not provided. The key message from students was that recordings are invaluable for a myriad of reasons and offer support which helps to level the playing field for the diverse student population.
Finally, we asked students to tell us about outward mobility - study abroad and erasmus opportunities. Our data shows that in 2020-21 20.9% of undergraduate students in UCD who engaged in outward mobility were from access groups - well below the 34.6% of the full population who are from access groups. Outward mobility is a highly valuable experience for students and it is vital that we investigate the barriers in place for access students so as to provide equity of opportunity in all aspects of the UCD experience. Only a small number of access students in the focus groups had considered engaging in outward mobility and an even smaller number had actually travelled. The most significant barrier reported by students was affordability coupled with a lack of available knowledge on total costs. Students said there were many information sessions which were useful but not enough focus on costs and how these could be covered through UCD’s financial support systems.
The student voice has always been at the centre of University for All from the very creation of the initiative to our implementation process. We will continue to be guided by UCD’s students in all of our work. If you’re interested in us running a student focus group for your discipline or unit please get in touch with your Widening Participation Lead.