Europe’s top universities mull unconscious bias training for staff

Failure to improve diversity risks ‘marginalising the impact and credibility of universities in an increasingly diverse world’, Leru warns

September 19, 2019
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Universities should consider giving all staff involved in hiring and promotion decisions training about the impact of bias in research and publishing in a bid to stamp out inequality, a paper produced by some of Europe’s leading institutions says.

The recommendation will be considered by the 23 institutions that form the League of European Research Universities, which published the report, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Universities: the Power of a Systemic Approach, on 19 September.

The report says that, “despite numerous efforts, many research-intensive universities have yet to develop fully inclusive processes and cultures that provide true equality of opportunity to staff and students from all backgrounds”.

Efforts to promote equality to date “have not been joined-up”, the report says, often failing to tackle “common barriers faced by all under-represented groups”, including women, ethnic minorities and disabled people. Frequently they have focused either on staff or student issues, not both; and they have rarely extended to building inclusivity into curricula or the design of research programmes.

“Not only do disjointed approaches tend to waste precious resources and goodwill, they risk marginalising the impact and credibility of universities in an increasingly diverse world,” the paper says.

Leru’s members – vice-chancellors and rectors – have signed up to implementing the report’s key recommendations, pledging to develop a formal strategy to create a more inclusive academic culture across their institutions, and to communicating the need for change “from the very top of the organisation”.

Some of the report’s most detailed recommendations are on the subject of assessment mechanisms, including the call for all staff involved in hiring and promotion decisions to receive training about bias in academic publishing – for example, women typically have lower acceptance rates, while men are more likely to cite themselves – and in grant awards, where ethnic minorities have been shown to face particular disadvantages. Training should also cover “the reduced capacity of those with caring responsibilities to forge high-value international collaborations”, the report says.

The report also urges conference organisers to be more proactive in identifying qualified speakers and panellists from under-represented groups, and to provide better childcare support, since responsibility for this still falls disproportionately on women.

And, in response to concerns that university rankings may “tempt university leaders to fall back on stereotypical markers of achievement which…stymie efforts to embrace the vigour of diversity”, the report suggests that vice-chancellors should “through a united front, seek to drive overdue reform of university performance measurement”.

Simone Buitendijk, vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London and lead author of the report, said that it aimed to ensure that Leru universities and academia more broadly could tackle diversity challenges “with more effect and more success”.

So much has already been tried but “not enough, compared to the effort, effect has been shown”, Professor Buitendijk said. However, she continued, work like this from a “powerful group of universities can be a wheel of change” across the sector and Leru will develop an action plan that includes collaboration with other networks, governments and funders, she said.

Leru member institutions in the UK include Imperial, UCL, and the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford. Its members on the Continent include the universities of Amsterdam, Freiburg and Heidelberg, Leiden and Sorbonne universities, and KU Leuven.

The report says that improving awareness within the academic community will be a key factor. Lack of insight into the existence of bias and of empathy towards groups affected by it “may be the single most important obstacle in the way of sustainable change”, it says, since this can lead to a sense of shortcoming among victims and, eventually, underperformance.  

“For the first time we’re looking at what’s stopping universities from being truly inclusive places for staff and students. It’s not just culture, but also what goes on in research,” Professor Buitendijk said.

“We have to show that if you make things better for the less privileged it actually makes it better for everyone.”

Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice in the University of Birmingham's School of Education, said: “This report is welcomed; the recommendation that staff are trained to recognise and address bias is crucial. However, such training must not be a ‘tick box’ exercise or indeed a one-off; it must be based on coherent ongoing conversations that lead to cultural change in universities.”


Print headline: Universities urged to train staff on hidden bias

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Reader's comments (2)

I don't see the "social justice" in asking people from one country (or ethnic group) to finance a university and then giving its resources away to people from other countries (or ethnic groups) in the name of "equality".
The easy option is to do some sort of E-learning, but I fear that wont make any difference.