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Transforming education to transform the world

6 September 2022

6 minutes to read

Transforming education to transform the world

In its Strategy 2030, the University of Exeter has pledged ‘to use the power of education and research to create a sustainable, healthy, and socially just future’. This goal requires the collective commitment of staff, students, and partners across the breadth of our activities and initiatives.

To facilitate success in the realm of teaching and learning support, in particular, we have developed the Transformative Education Framework. This is both a vision and a roadmap to achieve it: a tool to inspire collective efforts to transform our students’ education, to empower them and, in turn, to transform the world.

The Framework responds to increasing calls – from our staff and students, as well as from society more generally (especially in the wake of the George Floyd murder and Black Lives Matter movement of 2020) – for greater compassion, equity, and social responsibility. Members of the University community want to avoid tokenistic representation, as well as representation without corresponding feelings of being accepted, valued and able to thrive. They have also expressed a commitment to ensuring that everyone feels appreciated, safe, and supported – not just while they are at the institution, but also as they graduate and enter a world beset by ‘wicked’ challenges. Chief among these are climate emergency, inequality, and social injustice, which require a collaborative and humane approach to problem solving.

The Transformative Education Framework is intended to make the University of Exeter a place where students can develop the skills, knowledge, experience and attitudes needed to tackle those problems successfully. Specifically, the Transformative Education Framework aims to ensure that:

  • All our students and staff feel welcomed and valued;
  • Our University community collectively examines and, where necessary, challenges established and traditional approaches to assessment that have, alongside other inequalities, led to awarding gaps;
  • Inclusive language and practices are used in all teaching and learning contexts;
  • Students are provided with adequate support for achieving good mental health and wellbeing;
  • Forward-looking, sustainable approaches are promoted to uphold peace, good health and prosperity for all global citizens and the planet on which we live.

These goals can be achieved by focusing on three interlinked themes during the development, delivery and support of education: inclusive education, racial and social justice, and sustainability.

Transformative Education illustration


IIIIIInclusive education

There are many definitions of this concept, all of which share an emphasis on encouraging a learning environment that is accessible to everyone, fosters continued engagement of all students equally, facilitates openness to different ways of thinking and being, and overtly values differences. In such environments, teachers and students alike are aware of, and work to counteract, assumptions and biases; they also strive for transparency and foster accountability. As a result, all learners feel respected and therefore supported in their intellectual and personal growth.

Inclusive education at the University involves facilitating and benefitting from equality and diversity by pursuing language, behaviours and teaching practices that support the inclusion and success of all learners. It also works towards improving each student’s experience, skills and attainment. In aiming to include all learners, inclusivity simultaneously seeks to avoid the exclusion of any learner – for example, because of the particular traits or dimensions addressed in the Equality Act 2010.

Examples of work in this area include (but are not limited to):

  • Research on international students’ experiences, with an aim to improve their transition to living and learning in the UK
  • Creating mathematics games to improve numeracy confidence and competence amongst students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds
  • Student-led projects evaluating learning support provided to students from under-represented groups (for example, mature students)
  • Developing communities of learning and support amongst autistic students

Racial and social justice

To ensure racial and social justice, we must first learn how to see injustice and inequality, so our starting point with this theme is exposing, understanding and developing solutions to address racial and social inequalities in our community and in society more generally. This involves providing resources and creating discussion platforms for staff and students to help them understand how to address injustice through curriculum change.

We encourage staff and students to critically engage in discourse on how present circumstances are informed by past practices and ideologies, with a view to co-creating curriculum and teaching practices that are aimed at rectifying existing inequalities in our learning community and beyond.

Examples of work in this area include (but are not limited to):

  • Creation of a Decolonisation Toolkit, informed by a University-wide survey and focus groups, to support community members in evaluating and revising their curricula
  • Addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap through analysis of student performance and attainment data across the stages and modules taken as part of each programme
  • Student-led antiracism and gender safety projects funded by the Education Incubator
  • Discipline-specific deep-dives into social justice themes (for example, racism and coloniality) to improve understandings of how staff and students are impacted by these issues (as seen in, for example, Geography and Politics)


By actively embedding sustainability and climate change into core elements of our curriculum and education operations, we can profoundly impact how our students individually and collectively promote social, economic and ecological change – as well as contributing to the University’s globally leading contributions to environment, climate and sustainability education.

Sustainability is often associated with a narrow range of activities that do not immediately seem to have obvious links to education – for example, adopting a vegetarian diet, recycling and avoiding fast fashion. However, the diversity of topics covered in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reveals that this is an issue closely linked to the two themes described above and to the generation and dissemination of knowledge in schools and in higher education. By including this theme in the Transformative Education Framework, we seek to support educators and learners in seeing the connections between these topics and in understanding how best to engage with these interconnected issues in a way that is meaningful for education, both now and in the future.

Examples of work in this area include (but are not limited to):

  • Creation of Sustainability in Education Advocate role to look for opportunities to embed sustainability and to help colleagues choose how best to do this
  • Student-led project mapping Sustainable Development Goals in the curriculum to support informed decision making at the programme level
  • Inclusion of sustainability topics amongst Grand Challenges themes to give students real-world experience solving sustainability challenges
  • Pursuit of virtual field trip options (for example using the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) method) to replace carbon-intensive field trips with pedagogically sound alternatives

Transformative education at Exeter illustration

The Framework was developed collaboratively and continues to be a communally owned tool/initiative. Throughout the process of conceiving, refining, and launching the Transformative Education Framework, we have sought to provide the vision and steer requested by our educators, while also recognising their unique expertise and preserving their autonomy. This is why we undertook several rounds of consultation with both students and staff, including a series of ‘roadshows’ during the 2021/22 academic year that allowed us to discuss the Framework at both discipline and college levels. While time-consuming, this approach allowed us to produce something that guides but does not mandate.

Indeed, we have deliberately abstained from requiring uniform changes across the institution in a directive way; instead, we have acknowledged that different educators and disciplines have distinct needs and desires, and we have encouraged staff and students to meet locally (involving, where relevant, colleagues from central support teams) to decide whether and how to pursue the different strands of transformative education in their modules and programmes. Collectively, this has fostered an improved understanding of how ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ initiatives can work in collaboration to help us achieve our goals.

In some cases, solutions advocated in one module or discipline may be broadly applicable across the University, prompting the organisation of collaborative, institution-wide working groups that can collectively draft proposed amendments to our institutional Teaching Quality Assurance Manual. In other cases, staff are still supported in sharing good practice outside the discipline by, for example, contributing case studies to our Education Toolkit (link accessible to University of Exeter staff only) or via our Directors of Education Engage community of inquiry.

To further facilitate ongoing discussions, developmental opportunities, knowledge exchange and collaboration, we have established a dedicated webpage and associated SharePoint site to capture and disseminate good practice. Further, we have initiated the ‘Transformative Education Seminar Series’ to foster scholarly discussion and debate on relevant topics.

We are proud of the amount of progress that has already been made, but recognise that transforming education is an iterative and long-term project that will require patience, dedication and a willingness to experiment (and, occasionally, fail). Given the high stakes, however – not to mention the tremendous and fundamentally necessary benefits of success – we are more than happy to commit ourselves to supporting this essential work over the long term.

Illustration displaying the themes of transformative education at Exeter


For more information please contact:


Dr Caitlin KightDr Vrinda NayakProfessor Rob Freathy
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