Student Perspectives: Ajda Cimperman (UL)

Ajda profile picture
Ajda profile picture

How is inclusion discussed at your university?

When I started at university, at undergraduate level I studied natural sciences, then I switched to social sciences. It changes the framework you’re operating in: now we have a lot more political debates, and this is very much encouraged and cultivated, as opposed to the culture in natural sciences where there are lots of things you just don’t talk about, and you don’t express opinions on political or personal issues. That’s not the kind of course where you address societal issues. So in some courses you’re offered more opportunities to express things, and in others the issues are more undercover, implicit, not overtly stated. 

From my experience, there is legislation in the University of Ljubljana about inclusion, but a lot of people don’t know about it: these rules are not accessible because they are written in bureaucratic jargon, and people don’t understand it. Also, sometimes these policies sound great on paper but don’t translate into practice. Something that is missing for me is general knowledge, how informed people are about these issues, why these accommodations are in place. And also, they don’t know the content of the policies. This kind of thing is very important to know, not just in general terms but in depth. Only then can we achieve something useful for everybody, both staff and students.

Amongst students there is a lot of peer pressure and discrimination; they don’t understand why you get treated in a different way. They don’t understand that it’s not about making everything easier for you, or making everyone pity you – there is a reason for these things being in place. To get to this point, you have to understand why the policies are there, and to know them in depth rather than just on the surface.

How should students be involved as co-creators in Higher Education?

In co-creation, there should be constant feedback between the different parties, those who are being included and accommodated and all the different stakeholders. A constant back and forth, with a flexible structure – not rigid and unchanging – but where there is always this space for making something, improving something, a space to be able to say that something is lacking or not ideal, and then to do something about it. This aspect is very important.

It’s very important to include the real-life experiences of students in this process: to understand how they experience the process of studying. In addition to these ‘experts by experience’, university policies should also be informed by ‘experts by profession’. There are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of experts, and it’s necessary to have both of them.

As a member of the student council, I think there are not enough communications about what the council does and what we can do and should be obliged to do. Students have a right to approach members of the student council and demand things that perhaps the student representatives have more power over than normal students, and they can approach professors and address issues. So this exchange of information could probably be improved.

Are there any inclusive practices at your university that you would like to highlight?

In the last two months they have implemented a board of advisors at university level, and you can turn to them if you experience gender-, race-, or sexual orientation-based violence. You can send emails anonymously, if you know how to do it. This is not organised by students, although at individual faculties there are minor student organisations that fight to protect the rights of students. So it’s good that students have the power to influence these issues, but there should be higher layers of oversight and control, and groups that can actually change things. Some people think that what we have is enough, that ‘this is how things are’, and that the current provisions represent all experiences. But I don’t think that’s true.

It’s a good practice to have tutors for disabled students: sometimes other students can help me directly, but it’s better when university employees do it. Students are young people with other obligations, and they can’t spend all their time studying disability issues – so they’re not well informed, understandably. Also, since the University of Ljubljana isn’t that big, it’s not possible to always make disabled students themselves the disabled student tutors. So these are good policies and practices, but there are always improvements that could be made.

Are there aspects of life at university that you think are not inclusive?

When I started studying there was this mess of structural problems and obstacles at the university level. I’m disabled, and also had serious mental health issues. There was no way for me to finish my studies because of how things were structured. I got lucky because I could borrow money from my family to be able to finish. You can postpone for two years and then if you don’t complete your studies you’re out, and you have to pay to enrol again. I was lucky to be able to continue and finish my bachelor degree, then go on to the master’s course. This points to the fact that there are a lot of structural issues at the national and the university level, some of which have been improved in recent years.

Although there are regulations that say new buildings have to be accessible, in practice this isn’t always the case. If I want to find a mentor for my master’s thesis, I have to choose a professor whose office I can get to, so I can talk to them face to face.

As well as physical accessibility, in a perfect world it would be good to have more individual advisors, and to have more provision for psychological help and advice. When I started at university there was a lack of this, and sometimes when you’re physically disabled, especially coming to a new environment like university, you can find you have mental health problems. This isn’t just my experience but a lot of other people’s too.

Also, extra-curricular activities like student clubs could be made more accessible: most of the time these are pretty segregated in a way that I can’t access, and I’ll be met with people who don’t know how to approach me or talk to me. I want to say, ‘Just talk to me like you would to an ordinary person.’

I also think that there is this focus on one issue, disability, and then other aspects get neglected. I don’t think this is right, even though it benefits me personally. I would feel more comfortable if everyone was accommodated, not just me as disabled person. For example, foreign students: their situation became more problematic recently, at the institutional level in terms of how they are treated if and when they are able to enrol in university. It’s not good to focus resources only on one or a few groups, at the expense of others.