Friday, May 27, 2016

‘Not our responsibility?’: Equality and diversity in university teaching

Tutors are part-time, adjunct, assistant, sessional or casual staff essential to many universities’ teaching provision (Beaton and Gilbert, 2013), but often labelled as lost, invisible, intangible: an ‘academic underclass’ (Brand, 2013; Sharaff and Lessinger, 1994, p. 12; as cited in McCormack and Kelly, 2013, p. 94).  Such a view of tutoring only supports the idea that equality and diversity are not the responsibility of this group of teaching staff.

But, as Emma Watson eloquently put it in her speech to the UN in September 2014 launching the #HeForShe campaign, "if not me, who? If not now, when?". And actually, tutors are hugely important to front-line undergraduate teaching in most universities  - I'm sure we all remember being taught by PhD students or by recent PhD graduates. 

Tutors are often the teachers who spend the most time with undergraduates and are their main teaching point of contact. So it's clear that equality, inclusion, and diversity are the responsibility of tutors, and those who support the development of tutors, like me, need to think about how we can help.

So what kinds of support do we offer to tutors? The first thing we did was to explicitly highlight University and national policy on equality and diversity.  We were finding that, for whatever reason, tutors were not aware of these policies, so we began by telling tutors that these documents exist.

We then drew out points from University strategies and policies which were relevant to the teaching roles of tutors. In particular, we highlighted the mainstreaming of common learning adjustments as outlined in the Accessible and Inclusive Learning policy. These are actions agreed by the University that all teaching staff  should do, regardless of whether they think there is a need to (so whether they think there is a student with disabilities in the classroom). This is intended to make learning more acessible for everyone, and is also helpful in tackling the fact that many disabilities (including things like dyslexia) are not outwardly visible. These actions include things like:
  • Providing presentation slides for seminars at least 24 hours in advance of the class
  • Giving key words and formulae to students at least 24 hours before the class
  • Telling students about changes to rooms, classes, or courses by email
  • That students are allowed to record any teaching for their personal use
  • That all teaching staff should wear a microphone where available (even if it doesn’t appear that there is a need for it).
We also provide additional resources for tutors on ways to make teaching more inclusive and accessible, for example, the Race Equality Toolkit, which offers practical advice and tips), Teachability (for general help with teaching that is accessible to students with disabilities) and advice on netiquette for online teaching.

Above all, it's important for tutors to recognise that inequalities exist. Women are hugely under-represented in Engineering and Technology, for example (2014/15 saw 15,790 women and 85,225 men enrol at UK universities in this subject area: source - HESA), so tutors working in these areas can be aware that the women in the room may be more likely to be talked over or interrupted (this Bitch Media article collates some of the research on this)

For those tutors who are lucky enough to be able to pick their own teaching material, diversifying the curriculum (including texts by women, by black and minority ethnic authors) is one good way to be inclusive - former Edinburgh University Students' Union (EUSA) officer Imogen Wilson has written a blog post about this. Making your curriculum more diverse is sound advice, although it's often relevant only for staff with control over the content of their teaching.

I'm aware that these are only first steps. In terms of my role, we can work more closely with other parts of the University doing work around equality and diversity in learning and teaching, such as the Student’s Association (EUSA) and the Support Services who provide training and resources for staff more widely. Equality and inclusion in assessment and feedback (much of which is carried out by tutors) will likely be a focus for the future.

But, for now, I hope this is an important start to recognising that creating equality, inclusion, and diversity is the responsibility of all teachers, no matter their role.


I presented a paper on this subject at Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education: Sharing experiences and Best Practice at King’s College London in March 2016.

An earlier version of this post was published at IAD4Learn in May 2016



Beaton, F. and Gilbert, A. (2013). Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development. Routledge: London.

Brand, T. (2013). Foreword: The lost tribe. In F. Beaton and A. Gilbert (Eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development (pp. xv-xviii). Routledge: London.

McCormack, C. and Kelly, P. (2013). How do we know it works? Designing support interventions to meet the real needs of new part-time lecturers. In F. Beaton and A. Gilbert (Eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: New approaches to professional development (pp. 94-113). Routledge: London.


The image of the equality symbol was created by Mutxamel and accessed as public domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

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