In advance of next week’s conference, please read this Blog by Ronan McKinney (University of Sussex)

Last July Wendy Ashall – member of Foundation teaching faculty at Sussex, and current FYN Membership Secretary – attended FYNAC 2018 at the University of Nottingham. She returned hugely impressed by ‘the friendliest conference I have yet attended’, and enthused by the opportunity to network with other foundation practitioners. Thus inspired, the team at Sussex resolved to send some delegates to this year’s conference.

Shortly afterward came the call for hosts for FYNAC 2019, whereupon we shifted from thinking about attending the conference, to actually hosting it (eek!). Collectively we recognised that hosting FYNAC offers an opportunity to not only be part of the national conversation around developing Foundation provision, but to lead that conversation: we jumped at the chance and submitted a bid.

As anyone who’s been involved with organising an academic conference will know, it’s a demanding, hectic yet ultimately thrilling experience: daunting and rewarding in equal measure. We chose to focus the conference on interrogating the ‘deficit model’: the assumption that incoming students lack certain skills, proficiencies, knowledge, and/or cultural capital, and that our task as educators is to remedy that deficit. We knew this would spark some lively and passionate debates, as it cuts to the very heart of what Foundation teaching is all about. It’s a highly relevant and controversial topic in the current context wherein providers are struggling to respond to learners’ exponentially rising needs for academic and pastoral support. One pedagogical viewpoint argues that the deficit model tends to individualise lack of achievement in learners and to overlook the influence of institutional, cultural or socio-economic factors. The challenge is then to reframe pedagogy to view the diversity of students’ backgrounds, skills and life histories as a resource which educators can draw upon, rather than an obstacle or deficit to be overcome. This approach meshes with current efforts across the sector to widen access to, and ensure the accessibility of, higher education.

A pedagogy based upon it thus risks blaming learners for the systemic failures which have impacted upon them. Equally, we thought it important to subject not only the deficit model itself, but the pedagogical discourse around it, to critical scrutiny. Are there contexts wherein the deficit model is beneficial, even crucial, to achieving the kind of knowledge gains that we as Foundation practitioners stake our reputations upon? Opening up the ‘deficit model’ and the critique of that model to critical examination via the conference allows us to focus on a specific pedagogy whilst opening the conversation to other significant current debates – including the increasing demands for pastoral support, widening participation and the dynamics of inclusion – in which we as Foundation practitioners are deeply enmeshed.

Ronan McKinney
Teaching Fellow in English Literature
University of Sussex

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