Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Designing outreach with people of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage – a lesson in critical unlearning

  • 9 December 2022
  • By Emily Danvers

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Emily Danvers, Lecturer in Higher Education Pedagogy (Education), School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex. Emily is on Twitter @EmilyDanvers.

Since 2019, my colleagues and I at the University of Sussex have partnered with Friends, Families and Travellers to deliver outreach to young people of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage in schools across the region. These experiences have taught us some important lessons in how to work inclusively with groups who have been marginalised in, and excluded by, higher education. Crucially, we have learnt that working with these communities involves acts of ongoing critical unlearning – rethinking the way we understand and work with diverse learners and approaching outreach practices in more nuanced and culturally responsive ways. However, these processes are not always usefully captured by the current policy talk of ‘quick wins’ or ‘what works’.

Just 6.9% of Gypsy/ Roma and 10.7% of Irish Travellers access higher education by the age of 19 compared to around 40% of all young people. The reasons for this under-representation are a complex constellation of historical, political, and social exclusions, racism and misrecognition that result in poor progress through formal education. 

This underrepresentation is compounded by a notable lack of centralised policy direction and impetus for widening access to, and supporting the retention and success of, students of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage. Work has emerged from within individual universities driven by the academic, personal or political motivations of individuals and departments, rather than by a national agenda. Notably, the fantastic GTRSB into Higher Education Pledge asks higher education institutions to actively commit to practices to support Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, Showmen and Boater community members in transition into and through, academia. Yet a piecemeal approach results in slow social change. In 2019, fewer than 30% of Access and Participation plans mentioned Gypsy, Roma and Traveller learners and fewer than 5% included targeted interventions.  

At Sussex, targeted support for those from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage occurs because of an ongoing collaboration between community organisations, academics, widening participation and schools. We have approached this work with a view to critical unlearning – via engaging in acts of humility and listening with a range of stakeholders, challenging embedded stereotypes of expected educational trajectories for young people and rethinking deficit models and essentialist categorisations of people with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage. 

A specific challenge we are grappling with is the way university outreach can essentialise people into ‘neat’ categories. Within a target-driven outreach sector, marginalised groups need to be ‘knowable enough’ to produce workable solutions for their inclusion. Yet the data shorthand ‘GRT’ draws together richly diverse communities. The acronym prioritises analytical convenience and flattens nuanced representations and histories of the groups captured within. These debates are explored by Penny Jane Burke who identifies how outreach is embedded in regulatory practices which aim to know and fix the outreach target to conform to hegemonic expectations of what it means to be a university student.

The tension we therefore face in our work is that if we name ‘GRT’ on access agreements we reduce young people’s intersectional identities under a homogenised ethnicity marker that requires reporting back on. Yet without these categorisations, we would lack the attention and funds needed for outreach work to make a difference in communities. This process of ‘knowing’ as categorisation becomes additionally compounded because Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people are negatively racialised as ‘difficult’ subjects, occupying an ‘unacceptable’ whiteness.

A process of critical unlearning in relation to this has involved a slower and small-steps approach to outreach. Instead of a programme designed by us and delivered to schools, we have worked collaboratively withschools, community organisations and young learners to design responsive programmes that incorporate the perspectives of these diverse stakeholders. Also, in the ongoing research that has accompanied this outreach, we have sought to understand how ethnicity outreach categorisation ‘feels’ to young people. Our goal in all of this is to represent and support the complex lives of a wide spectrum of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people, imagining a future in which higher education might play a part. 

The work we are doing in this area is ongoing (as is our processes of unlearning). However, in order so share something of our experiences with others, we have developed the CIAO model as a set of thinking questions to support designing inclusive outreach. 

CIAO stands for Collaborative, Intersectional, Ambitious and Ongoing. CIAO represents the key principles that we think should drive outreach for people of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage in order that it is effective, meaningful and contextually and culturally sensitive.


This involves reflecting on: Who could I work with to develop a breadth of expertise on this topic, particularly drawing in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community voices and experiences?

We work together as a fluid network of academics, outreach, schools, colleges, funders and community organisations to share expertise and perspectives. Understanding the complex experiences of marginalised groups requires diverse skills and expertise. Crucially, the voices of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community members you seek to work with should be foregrounded in ways that are neither tokenistic nor expectant of marginalised groups to bear the brunt of anti-racist labour. 


This involves reflecting on:  How can I understand, recognise and support the multiple and complex identities of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals?

People with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage represent a spectrum of identities, histories, experiences and attitudes, particularly towards education. What this question asks is to re-think the notion of a fixed set of needs emerging from an ethnicity. Factors such as gender, social class, geography and disability all may differentially ‘come to matter’ in shaping trajectories of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people towards or into higher education. This leads back to the first point about the work needed to understand the community drawing on the expertise of colleagues and community members.


This involves reflecting on:  How can I support the expansive ambitions of Gypsy, Roma and Travellerindividuals while not imposing ideas of what a ‘good’ higher education trajectory might be?’

The young people in Sussex we work with have diverse and expansive ambitions for their futures that move beyond traditional cultural perceptions and expectations. Higher education may be part of that journey but outreach should avoid presenting this as the ‘correct’ trajectory. Indeed, higher education has work to do in decolonising its own practices in order that it represents a space for marginalised groups to be ‘welcomed’. This thinking question involves engaging in relationship building and humility in listening to the experiences, desires and concerns those with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage have about higher education as a possible future. 


This involves reflecting on: How can I continue to develop and enhance my understanding and my work?

CIAO is not a fixed model of what works but a commitment to ongoing learning (and unlearning). Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are not ‘quick wins’ but a group of people with often complex relationships to education who require thoughtful and nuanced support towards or into higher education. This is about an orientation away from ‘this is how it should be done towards ‘this is how it might be continually developed.

The markestised context of outreach relies on categorisations which produce the imaginary of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller student as a knowable target that interventions can be successfully delivered towards. However, we think there is an urgent need for nuanced work to destabilise such quick-fix discourses towards more careful outreach practice. We hope the CIAO model supports institutions to engage in this important work.

Future HEPI events:

  • On Tuesday 13 December 2022, HEPI and the University of the Arts London are hosting an event to launch major new research on new HE funding options, produced by London Economics. More information is available here.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *