Third UNIC Superdiversity School – Enacting Superdiversity: Towards Critical Change in Higher Education

University College Cork (UCC) hosted the third UNIC Superdiversity School – entitled Enacting Superdiversity: Towards Critical Change in Higher Education. This event was organised by the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21), which is leading on the UNIC Superdiversity Academy (WP4) at UCC, in conjunction with Access UCC and the university’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Unit.

Virtual Place


Start: 17.05.2022
End: 19.05.2022


Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21) , Access UCC

Aim of School

The overarching aim of the UCC Superdiversity School was to explore the epistemic and practical implications of superdiversity for practices, policies and ‘ways of being’ in the university. A key objective was to facilitate discussion and exchange of ideas and practices, acknowledging that superdiversity is still an emerging concept and providing the space to reflect on what it means for universities. Each day focused on one of three core themes: teaching and learning, and issues of pedagogy; initiatives promoting access to, and engaging with, diverse groups in higher education spaces; and EDI policies and processes. The focus on these three separate but interconnected domains highlights the range of ways in which superdiversity bears relevance to the university space – in our teaching, in students’ access to education, and in the university’s equality, diversity and inclusion polices.

Daily sessions were led by UCC staff from across the university, underlining the interdisciplinary focus of the School, which was open to all UNIC partner institutions and UCC staff. A guest speaker from a UK university also provided his reflections on research illustrating the potential benefits and complexities of ‘superdiverse’ communities.

Day 1 – Critical pedagogies and inclusive teaching

The first day of the School focused on the topic of critical pedagogies and inclusive teaching and learning practices to help build a more superdiverse space in the university. This session was chaired by Dr Stephen O’Brien, Lecturer in the School of Education, UCC, and featured three presenters who outlined their experiences in the educational sphere. The first speaker (Dr Ceire Broderick, Lecturer in Latin American Studies) focused on the issue of ‘internationalising the curriculum’, providing case study examples from Latin American studies, in both the formal curriculum and beyond this (e.g. in the delivery and supports for students). The importance of internationalising the curriculum was a key tenet, combining both international and intercultural dimensions, to help ensure that students address pre-conceived ideas/assumptions and understand the plurality of perspectives that exist in a given field.

The second speaker (Dr Gertrude Cotter, Lecturer at the Centre for Global Development, UCC) spoke about her experiences and the challenges of integrating Development and Critical Global Citizenship education into pedagogy, research and capacity building activities across the university as part of the Praxis Project at UCC. This included reflecting on what terms such as development education mean and acknowledging that such concepts are open to critique and informed discussion. The Freirean concept of ‘Praxis’ underpins this initiative, highlighting the importance of action and reflection, of the need to transform our environment through further action and critical reflection. The value of critical theory in education and of challenging our assumptions by engaging with multiple and diverse perspectives were also strongly underlined.

The concept of critical pedagogies was explored by the third speaker (Dr Anna Santucci, Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning Enhancement at UCC), drawing on her own experiences as an ‘intercultural scholarly teacher’ and of applying ‘intercultural competence’ in her teaching. The importance of our own values and beliefs about learning and education was explored. This includes acknowledging our own needs as educators and being open to learning from each other to interrogate our own as well as institutional practices. The importance of action and reflection, of ‘resisting finality’ in our teaching was further highlighted. To facilitate inclusive teaching, a number of frameworks were also briefly discussed, such as the Inclusive Pedagogy Toolkit, the Deep Teaching Model and the Intercultural Competence framework. The issue of assessment and feedback, of what we measure and what we value, was also raised in this context, including questions around how we might do this differently as educators.

Epistemic implications of living with difference
In the second part of the day, guest speaker Dr Julius Elster, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Youth Studies at London Metropolitan University, spoke about his work in Tottenham, North London, an area described as “the most diverse constituency in the world” (Baker et al, as cited in Visser, 2020). With more than 200 first languages spoken in the area, Tottenham is an example of a ‘superdiverse’ community and offers important learning in terms of how people experience difference in their everyday lives.

Despite the rich diversity of this area, Tottenham is often described in homogenous terms and receives negative, stereotypical media coverage. Drawing on his research with young people in this area, Dr Elster outlined how such portrayals belie a different reality, where diversity and 'difference' are experienced as a normal part of everyday life. In the research, young people spoke about their superdiverse context in a positive light, where difference and diversity become ‘unremarkable’ and there is a sense of greater tolerance, acceptance and belonging. The seminar sought to underline the epistemological implications of recognising ‘difference’ as an everyday component of life, showing the potential benefits of living in superdiverse contexts, where different groups can claim their own multiple identities without being subjected to othering or marginalisation by a single dominant group. Such research provides important lessons for understanding the potentially enriching experience of living in superdiverse contexts, including this notion of ‘epistemic diversity’, where different knowledges are accommodated and respected in a particular social setting.

Day 2 – Accessing the university

The second day of the UCC Superdiversity School focused on the theme of access to the university, thinking about how we can facilitate access to superdiverse communities. This included exploring the mechanisms by which we can do this, along with key considerations and challenges in enabling access to superdiverse communities. Drawing on some of the discussions from the previous day, a key objective was thinking about practical ways to accommodate and respect different knowledges and experiences in the university space.

Dr Gill Harold, Lecturer in the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC began by examining some of the conceptual ways in which we think about access, including questioning preconceived ideas regarding access and reflecting on key concerns in terms of both policy and practice. The simplicity of the term ‘access’ can for example belie the complex and fluid nature of this concept, preventing us from responding in ways that acknowledge the nuances of this concept in higher education. Dr Harold highlighted how policy priority categories can overwhelm our capacity to see the individual and how in thinking about ‘access’ in higher education, we need to devise ways to facilitate true engagement that encapsulates the intersectionality of the human experience. This includes examining how fit-for-purpose the term ‘access’ itself is, thinking about who we are involving in creating our access policies, recognising the importance of the classroom as a site of encounter where access happens, and acknowledging the need for ongoing support to facilitate true access and success in higher education.

An overview and discussion on current initiatives underway at Access UCC followed. A key point noted by Head of Access UCC, Olive Byrne, is the expanding remit of access initiatives, which should not only aim to ensure greater access to students, reflecting the diversity of the wider population, but also to encourage students’ meaningful participation and success in the university once they are there. The importance of early engagement and outreach with students at both secondary and even primary school levels was also underlined, to help inform students of the pathways and opportunities in higher education early on. Ensuring that ‘access is everyone’s responsibility’ was further highlighted, whereby people across the university should aim to work collectively to promote greater access and inclusion, and to support the wide-ranging work of the Access office.

The range of Access-related initiatives described in this session underlines the complexity and multifaceted nature of facilitating access to the university for an increasingly diverse student population. Current admission pathways underway at UCC, for example, include those for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students with disabilities, mature students (aged 23+) and students entering through the further education system. The University of Sanctuary initiative for asylum seekers and refugees underlines another facet of the university’s access priorities for the growing number of international students who may be fleeing human rights abuses, persecution or conflict. The importance of providing sustained support to students once they access higher education was further reiterated and illustrated through initiatives such as the Disability Support Service (DSS) (e.g. making the physical, social and academic environments of the university more ‘autism friendly’), the DSS Employability Programme (i.e. supporting students with disabilities to secure employment after they leave higher education) and Traveller mentorship (i.e. providing mentoring to students from the Traveller community who enter higher education). (Note: Further information on these initiatives is available via the following recording or associated links above.)

Promoting digital inclusion

The final session on Day 2 focused on the theme of digital inclusion, a further aspect related to improving access and participation at the university. Digital inclusion seeks to ensure that people have access to, but also the confidence and skills to use, the online medium. James Northridge, Project Manager at Inclusive UCC, outlined his experiences and learning gained from working to promote and facilitate digital inclusion at the university.

A key point highlighted was the need to mainstream accessibility and digital inclusion initiatives so that they are aimed at all students and not just particular cohorts such as students with disabilities. Rather than viewing these initiatives as niche or targeted, universities should seek to “design to the edges so that we include all”. James outlined practical tips for making our materials more inclusive and accessible, illustrating how we can all make practicable changes to promote digital inclusion. The initiatives described as part of Inclusive UCC also illustrates how universities can be more proactive in this area, but also how they have obligations to make their institution more inclusive and digitally accessible to everyone.

Day 3 – Equality, diversity and inclusion

The third and final day of the UCC Superdiversity School focused on the theme of equality, diversity and inclusion, including a critical discussion and overview of the work underway in this area. Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire, Senior Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies, UCC introduced the panel discussion, welcoming the opportunity to reflect on how diversity plays out in the university and underlining the importance of associated concepts such as conviviality and superdiversity. Chair of the discussion, Professor Nuala Finnegan, Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, UCC highlighted the importance of engaging in critical self-reflection about concepts such as equality, diversity and inclusion, adding that initiatives such as UNIC and the Superdiversity School provided a welcome opportunity to reflect and engage in meaningful discussion on such topics.

Panellists were asked to discuss barriers, challenges and positive elements of their work in promoting equality, diversity and inclusion. The first panellist, Dr Laurence Davis, Lecturer at the Department of Government and Politics and Chair of UCC’s LGBT+ Staff Network, focused on LGBT+ issues. A key barrier highlighted was the lack of awareness of LGBT+ issues and needs. Education and awareness raising were noted as crucial to counter such lack of awareness, through activities such as public advocacy, training, seminars, and orientation for staff and students on LGBT+ issues. Dr Davis also underlined the need to work in solidarity with other groups in the university to tackle all forms discrimination and for awareness of ‘intersectional’ forms of oppression. Regarding challenges that remain in seeking to embed equality, diversity and inclusion in the university, Dr Davis noted three aspects: the need for more sufficient data in order to identify and address distinctive needs; the need to rethink EDI infrastructure, including devolving responsibilities in this area so that everyone can play a part and take responsibility for addressing discrimination; and the need for broader social and cultural change, including ‘educating the educators’ on how to engage with and address EDI-related issues.

The problem of unconscious bias and the ‘invisibility’ of our own situatedness was the focus of the second panellist, Dr Nita Mishra, poet, post-doctoral researcher and part-time lecturer at the Department of Food Business and Development, UCC. Dr Mishra raised the question of what do we mean when we talk about equality, diversity and inclusion in the university. Thinking about our EDI policies and teaching practices at the university, Dr Mishra underlined the importance of being aware of the invisibility of our own situatedness and of the need to co-create knowledge as equals, citing Freire’s emphasis on the importance of serious reflection and action. Shifting the lens and situating oneself in critical pedagogy (e.g. as a white, middle-class academic or a high-caste Brahmin woman) was discussed as an important way forward. The value of critiquing dominant approaches including Feminist Standpoint Methodologies was also briefly discussed in seeking to give voice to social groups excluded from dominant power structures. The key message was as Audre Lorde has called out, “the Master’s tools will not dismantle the Master’s house”.

Students with disabilities and the barriers faced in career development opportunities was the focus of the third panellist, Shay Nolan, Employability Project Manager at Access UCC. One of the key barriers highlighted by Shay was the lack of confidence among students with disabilities in making the transition from higher education to the workplace. Employers may also lack the confidence in understanding and engaging with disability in a meaningful way. Issues of trust also persist among students with disabilities, who may often be reluctant to disclose to prospective employers the fact that they have a disability. In terms of what is working well, positive initiatives underway at the university include its DSS Employability Programme, which partners with employers to provide mentorship and internship opportunities to students with disabilities. Challenges include finding ways to share and leverage the experience and knowledge gained from such initiatives, ensuring that students and other employers are aware of the opportunities that exist. Supporting employers to understand disability and to work with students with a disability was also highlighted as a key priority of work in this area.

Learning points

The UCC Superdiversity School provided an important opportunity to both critically reflect on themes related to the concept of superdiversity and to give a snapshot of the wide range of initiatives underway in this area at the university. The variety of themes and initiatives discussed highlights how superdiversity as a concept can provide a useful platform for debate and critical reflection. However, it is also an emerging concept and one which warrants further discussion – particularly in terms of what it means for universities, whether or not it is helpful and ways in which it can be interrogated further.

The opportunity for knowledge sharing through hosting this event also highlights the value and importance of knowledge exchange. In the context of UNIC, there is real potential for partner institutions to learn from each other and to gain an insight into the different ways in which access, equality, diversity and inclusion can be supported. As we acknowledge the increased diversity of our university population, and the complexities therein, providing a space for critical reflection and learning is now more important than ever to help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly superdiverse society. Recordings and slides from the UCC Superdiversity School can be accessed at the following link.

For more information about this case study, please contact: at ISS21


UNIC Superdiversity Academy | Superdiversity Schools


Diversity and Inclusion | Higher Education | Inclusive Teaching | Access

Type of Case




Organizing unic universities

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