by Natalie Forster and Martin Gallagher
Did you know that June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month? Chances are, this may have passed you by, as it often goes more un-noticed in society than other awareness raising events. The theme for the month is #MakeSomeSpace and it seems timely therefore to give an update on our SRHE Scoping Study, which considers the representation of Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Bargee (GTRSB) communities in the spaces of higher education and widening participation.
There is growing scrutiny of universities in both the media and the academy for their failure to robustly challenge the racism and inequality which pervades in these settings, and move beyond passive and purely performative gestures (such as black squares posted on social media in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder) to implement concrete action leading to lasting change.
GTRSB communities are minority ethnic communities who are particularly under-represented in higher education. Figures must be treated with caution, as many GTRSB students avoid self-identifying for fear of discrimination. However, the most recent data suggests that 3-4% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people aged 18-30 participated in higher education in 2014/15, compared to 43% of this age group nationally, and only 70 Gypsy, Traveller or Irish Traveller students entered higher education in 2018 (Atherton 2020). Recent research (Mulcachy et al 2017, Forster and Gallagher 2020) and media coverage also highlights the isolation and exclusion felt by GTRSB staff and students in higher education, due to the invisibility of GTRSB contributions within university environments and curricula.
Initiatives to increase representation of GTRSB communities in higher education are gaining momentum. A national ‘Good Practice Pledge’ was recently launched for example, through which institutions can demonstrate and enact their commitment to supporting GTRSB communities into and within higher education. However, work in this area is still in its infancy, and confusion surrounding the appropriate definition and targeting of GRT communities in widening participation schemes forms a key barrier to progress (Forster and Gallagher 2020).
Our SRHE scoping project aims to provide clarity around how Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are currently defined and represented in widening participation policy and practice, and arrive at some common recommendations for future work in this field. The project involves three arms: a systematic literature review; a documentary analysis of Access and Participation Plans (APPs); and a Delphi study involving GRT students, widening participation specialists, and academics.
Headline findings point to the dominance of an individual hero type narrative which represents GTRSB students as ‘trailblazers’ and positions GTRSB participation in HE as an atypical event, requiring personal triumph over adversity. While this narrative recognises the determination of GTRSB students in overcoming barriers to higher education access and participation, it may also serve to reinforce the falsity that that GTRSB culture is incompatible with academic success, and downplay the need for structural change, instead placing the onus on GTRSB students to act as ‘role models’ and ‘give back’ to the broader community.
Narratives of GTRSB participation in HE as an unusual event are reflected in, and potentially reinforced through the treatment of these groups in Access and Participation Plans. Only 86 of the 245 plans reviewed (35%) make any reference to GTRSB communities, and of these, only 14 (16%) target GTRSB communities explicitly. Reasons for a lack of action to address inequalities experienced by GTRSB communities included the absence of data to assess performance for these groups; the small size or limited resources of institutions; and/or low numbers of GTRSB students. However, without systemic action, barriers to self-identification and the low numbers of GTRSB students in higher education are likely only to be reproduced. These findings reflect current Office for Students guidance, which frames the inclusion of GTRSB communities in APPs as optional, and experts consulted in our study strongly supported the addition of GTRSB communities as groups that higher education institutions must assess their progress for.
Our work highlights important and potentially troubling absences of GTRSB experiences within discourses on widening participation. This GRTHM and beyond, we urge higher education and widening participation professionals to #MakeSomeSpace to reflect on their current understandings and representations of GTRSB communities, and the ways these may promote or hinder the realisation of GTRSB educational rights.
Dr Natalie Forster is a Research Fellow in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Follow Natalie on Twitter @ForsterNatalie
Martin Gallagher is a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Follow Martin on Twitter @GallagherGRT
Atherton G. (2020) More than Luck: enabling access and success in Higher Education for Gypsy, Romany and Traveller (GRT) communities. London: Sir John Cass’s Foundation.
Forster N, and Gallagher M. Exploring how Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students can best be supported to participate and thrive in higher education. Newcastle: Northumbria University. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342570864_Exploring_how_Gypsy_Roma_and_Traveller_students_can_best_be_supported_to_participate_and_thrive_in_higher_education
Mulcahy E, Baars S, Bowen-Viner K, Menzies L. (2017) The underrepresentation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in higher education: A report on barriers from early years to secondary and beyond. London: Kings College London