Why intersectionality cannot wait. Considering Northern Ireland’s widening participation policy

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘everyone has the right to education’. The establishment of this right in social and legal discourses, as well as increased access to schooling in many countries within the last one-hundred years has led to the perception of education as essentially inclusive. In this context, access to higher education and successful educational outcomes are often taken for granted and are rarely framed as major issues—let alone as issues related to gender, race or any other social identity. 

By adopting feminist and intersectional perspectives, however, we can see how inequalities and injustices effect many aspects of life, including education. Intersectionality emphasises overlapping social categories, in addition to gender, that work together to compound an individual’s marginalisation and disadvantage. Kimberly Crenshaw, one of the pioneers of intersectionality, describes it as,  

‘a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power’, that ‘[brings] to light the invisibility of many constituents within groups that claim them as members, but often fail to represent them’. 

In this sense, intersectionality is an analytical perspective. More importantly though, it is also a lived experience—based on multiple identities—that is often overlooked, unacknowledged and misrecognised.

Increasingly, the concept of widening participation in higher education is drawing attention to the role of social identity in determining whether or not a student has the opportunity to attend and succeed at university. As both a government policy and higher education practice in the United Kingdom, widening participation initiatives aim to increase the accessibility of undergraduate study for students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds. Most often, students targeted by widening participation strategies are those who face financial barriers to attending based on their socio-economic status, although other social categories that may disproportionately face barriers may also be included to a lesser extent. These include disadvantaged groups based on gender, race or ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, refugee status, care leavers and those with caring responsibilities. Widening participation, in other words attempts to examine and mitigate the negative effects of privilege, marginalisation and disadvantage as they relate to students’ various economic and social statuses.

From their very nature, many widening participation strategies may seem intersectional. In practice, however, these intersectional approaches not always perfect, nor clear cut. For example, the Northern Irish version of the policy, Access to Success, claims ‘support should be tailored to individual needs and based on identified multiple disadvantages’ (DfE 2015, p.17). Nevertheless, there is limited evidence of this in the rest of the strategy. In fact, the only evidence of an intersectional approach is the identification of Protestant males from areas of high deprivation as distinctly underrepresented in higher education–combining disadvantages related to religion, gender, and class. 

 Simultaneously, several other groups that are recognised as facing disproportionate disadvantages in access and successful outcomes in their higher education experience elsewhere in the U.K. are completely excluded from the widening participation strategy. Most notably, Black, Asian, ethnic minority (BAME) and female students are considered ‘well represented based on enrolment statistics. As a result, these groups are considered to have fair and equal access. Despite this broad assumption about female and BAME student access, there has been acknowledgement of disproportionate disadvantages and barriers faced by these groups elsewhere in the UK through higher education policies, the National Union for Students and in academic research. Further, LGBTQ+ students and several other groups are not mentioned in the policy at all, despite also experiencing disadvantages and marginalisation.

Equally worryingthere appear to be no attempts to fulfil the initial promise to recognise forms of multiple disadvantage, stemming from the intersection of these identities with others. In using broad categories such as ‘men’, ‘women’ and ‘ethnic minorities’ the different types of barriers faced by an LGBTQ+ student, a BAME woman and a white woman all from low-income households, for example, are apparently not considered. Rather, Access to Successtreats these groups and potential barriers or disadvantages as homogenous. Essentially, as bell hooks put it, the policy assumes ‘all the women are white and all the blacks are men’ and so on.  

The outright exclusion of certain groups as well as their exclusion from the policy’s intersection approach, indicate that policy makers in Northern Ireland do not see these groups as facing significant barriers and inequalities to access and success in higher education. Perhaps this is because many of the disadvantages faced by these groups, specifically at the intersections of identities, are not always straight forward, easily quantifiable, nor reflected in admission and enrolment statistics on which many policies are based. Or perhaps, in the case of race and ethnicity, it may be because Northern Ireland is perceived as almost entirely white and, therefore free of racism. (Although we know this is not the case, particularly in higher education, as was recently highlighted by Queen’s University’s Afro-Caribbean Society). 

Nevertheless, this selective application of an intersectional perspective on educational inequalities is not inconsequential. By overlooking some specific and less obvious barriers while appropriately attempting to mitigate the effects of others, the policy risks increasing the gap in educational inequalities between groups. This does not mean, however that Northern Ireland’s widening participation efforts are beyond improvement. A more intersectional approach could be achieved if policy makers and higher education professionals commit themselves to posing more critical and intersectional questions, such as: ‘which types of men and women are present in the student bodies of universities?’; ‘how is LGBTQ+ identity connected to multiple forms of disadvantage and marginalisation that may affect access to or success in higher education?’; and ‘how do experiences for both male and female BAME students from low-income households compare to both white male and white female students from similar socio-economic backgrounds?’.

Without addressing these questions to create a more inclusive policy, many the groups mentioned here and the variety of complex barriers they face both to entering higher education and to success within it will ultimately continue to be left unacknowledged, misrecognised or entirely invisible. To quote Kimberly Crenshaw, ‘intersectionality cannot wait’. Indeed, if Northern Ireland’s widening participation policy is to be an effective tool in the fight against educational inequalities it is important to use intersectional perspectives to scrutinise the effects of social policies, especially taking into consideration who and what is not addressed.

Author Bio:

Anna DeWitt is a master’s student from the United States completing a degree in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s. She is interested in the role of education and community organisations in promoting conflict transformation and social justice. In the future she hopes to combine these interests in her work to encourage positive outcomes for young people by supporting educational and leadership opportunities and promoting their capacities to work with others from diverse backgrounds. 

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