Show and Tell: liberating the curriculum

Tuesday 28-02-2017 - 10:23

Niall Hamilton, Education Officer at Reading University Students’ Union and member of NUS’ Higher Education Zone Committee, writes about how his union is liberating the curriculum in practice through academic reps and implementing an institution-wide framework.

Nowadays, when you mention a framework in higher education, you might be met with stern faces by many students worried this is yet another ill-thought government policy, but at Reading there’s one particular framework that has academic reps very excited.

Two years ago, we began work on the ‘Curriculum Framework’, a set of ideals and attributes that both students and staff wanted from their course curricula. This was in response to the 2014 BME Report which showed Reading University was above sector average on BME students’ attainment gaps percentages, as well as discussions around cuts to the Disabled Students’ Allowance and its effects on the accessibility of the curriculum in the broad sense, and a growing desire from the student population to be involved in co-curricular design.

Knowing this, we at the students’ union lobbied the university to create a framework that would embed those issues into how curricula are set by staff.

Our student population is extremely diverse. Students come from a range of backgrounds and have a wide range of needs. We mustn’t assume all our students require the same kinds of support, but need to engage everyone to ensure a high quality experience for all and to enhance retention and graduate outcomes. This means asking ourselves some important, and often uncomfortable questions. Does the curriculum we offer engage and bring in the perspectives of all of our students and staff? Might our curriculum, and teaching and learning practices, privilege some groups of students by upholding a rigid idea of what success looks like while leaving others marginalised and at a disadvantage?

After over a year of work, the Curriculum Framework was launched as a collaborative project by both students and staff, with diversity and inclusion at the heart of its requirements for every curriculum.

This framework has been followed by a compulsory review, taking place over the next three years, in which every module convener, along with student representatives, must evaluate their curricula against the framework. The curriculum framework goes beyond course content and syllabi, encompassing all aspects of teaching, learning and assessment delivered by programmes for the attainment of programme learning outcomes.

We have also created guidance on all aspects of the curriculum framework to ensure academics are supported throughout the process. The first step is getting them to know who their students are and how they can support their successful transition to university. It continues through design choices (such as content, materials, resources and assessment) and pedagogic issues (such as planning group work or organising practicals and fieldwork). All of this is supported through our own reflection, particularly in considering our unconscious biases. I also lead two training sessions on inclusive assessment, delving into ideas about how to ensure accessibility for all students and how being flexible with assessment methods doesn’t detract from meeting the same learning outcomes.

Alongside working with the university, the students’ union has been proactive in educating, training and supporting academic reps on liberation issues and the importance of accessibility. We held two academic rep conferences at the start of the academic year, training them on issues ranging from liberating the curriculum to ensuring assessment and feedback is accessible, and available to all.

We have also secured a £1,000 book fund from the library to be spent on students’ suggestions for items (books, DVDs, CDs) which could help support a more diverse curriculum.

Me and Sed Joshi, the RUSU Diversity Officer are also holding a Liberate My Curriculum conference, aimed at students and staff to support them on working in collaboration on curriculum design going forward on Wednesday 1 March and looking forward to engaging more and more students and staff with thought-provoking discussions about academia and institutionalised forms of oppression and how they can be undone and dismantled.

For more information on starting local campaigns on issues around liberation in teaching and learning, check out NUS’ Liberate My Degree campaign hub.



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