What is the role of the University in building inclusive societies?


The democratization of access to universities is an issue that concerns, to a greater or lesser extent, all countries and higher education systems.

The number of students who began to attend universities from the 1960s grew exponentially. This changed the way of understanding this institution.

Its reason for being was no longer found only in an elite of students , but was deduced from the role it should play in building democratic and inclusive societies. Above all, from the reform of the European Education Area (EHEA).

This modification resulted in the proliferation of policies, offices and services to address diversity in practically all universities.

Changes in the system towards inclusive universities

The results have been very uneven from one university to another, but regulatory or mandatory guidelines related to gender and attention to functional diversity have almost always prevailed. However, the question remains in the air: special units or deep system changes?

The current economic system framework has installed an increasingly meritocratic  and credential logic in universities . Students have become customers, faculty into resources, projects into products, and class hours into credits. In “the market of inclusion” it remains to be defined what the role of the University is .

Diversity in students

In general, pragmatic narratives that instrumentalize diversity and the imperative need to be placed in this or that ranking prevail, forgetting the big question: What is the role of universities in inclusive societies? Where should universities change to accommodate an increasingly diverse student body or to adapt to traditionally unconventional populations, such as students of migrant origin, ethnic minorities or those with different cognitive abilities?

In the research work Attention to Diversity and Inclusive Education at the University. Diagnosis and Evaluation of Institutionalization Indicators (2018-2021) is committed to underlining the social function of higher education and the proposal of an inclusive University. The study points to profound changes in the system as a whole, in the curriculum, in teaching methodologies, in management models that, in a broad sense, go beyond the pedagogical response, permeating the organizational culture and the educational community in general. .

Inclusive policies

These changes must translate into the implementation of inclusive and comprehensive policies and practices. Otherwise, the risk that universities run represents a threat to the very roots of life in common, authentic democracy, economic and social progress and, of course, the very legitimacy of the university system.

In 2007 the newspaper The New York Times published the obituary on the death of Martin Trow in which he recalled that his greatest contribution to the academic world was his description of the transition of a university education from elite privilege to mass product.

However, there is still an air of melancholy that students were better before, placing the adaptive demand on students as subjects with “specific learning needs”.

Less frequently, institutional factors or management models that are implemented are examined, because despite the inclusive image that the University tries to project, it is still quite homogeneous in terms of its faculty or governance models.

All this under the premise of leaving intact a university structure that resists the changes that are natural to modern democratic societies.

Don’t blame the student body

A University that intends to be inclusive must be based on other ways of framing the problem and articulating the actions that go beyond blaming the students, who arrive at the University as lacking in level, prior knowledge, basic skills for learning , etc.

The concept of excellence is usually linked to the recruitment of talent, research or specific services and not to the set of general university management processes.

The profound changes must take place at multiple levels of policy and institutionalization of an inclusive paradigm in the University to enact the “committed University”, which combines social impact and human development, among others.

Either the University is transformed or how can it transform the society that surrounds it? There is a long way to go in the construction of inclusive universities that involve the creation of learning opportunities for all students and the promotion of meaningful social and academic relationships between people and social actors that go beyond partial reforms, moving towards systemic change and cultural.

Author Bio: Rosa M. Rodríguez-Izquierdo is a Professor of the Department of Education and Social Psycholog at Pablo de Olavide University (2004 to the present)