A socially inclusive approach to user participation in higher education


L. Simons: e-mail:l.simons@soton.ac.uk


Title. A socially inclusive approach to user participation in higher education

Aim.  This paper is a report of a study to evaluate the development of an innovative Service User Academic post in mental health nursing in relation to student learning and good employment practice in terms of social inclusion.

Background.  Institutions providing professional mental health education are usually expected to demonstrate user involvement in the design, delivery and evaluation of their educational programmes to ensure that user voices are central to the development of clinical practice. Involvement can take many forms but not everyone values user knowledge as equal to other sources of knowledge. This can lead to users feeling exploited, rather than fully integrated in healthcare professional education processes. Development of the post discussed in this paper was stimulated and informed by an innovative example from Australia.

Method.  An observational case study of the development and practice of a Service User Academic post was undertaken in 2005. Participants were purposively sampled and included the User Academic, six members of a user and carer reference group, 10 educators and 35 students. Data were collected by group discussions and interviews. Data analysis was based on the framework approach.

Findings.  The evaluation revealed tangible benefits for the students and the wider academic community. Most important was the powerful role model the Service User Academic provided for students. The post proved an effective method to promote service user participation and began to integrate service user perspectives within the educational process. However, the attempts to achieve socially inclusive practices were inhibited by organizational factors. The expectations of the role and unintended discriminatory behaviours had an impact on achieving full integration of the role. Furthermore, shortcomings in the support arrangements were revealed.

Conclusions.  The search for an optimum model of involvement may prove elusive, but the need to research and debate different strategies, to avoid tokenism and exploitation, remains.