Inertia of staff can stall drive for diversity, survey shows

Poll finds university leadership supports diversity schemes but limited buy-in from rank and file

September 25, 2019
Multicultural students
Source: Istock

Persuading academics to back university diversity and inclusivity initiatives is one of the biggest challenges faced by such schemes, a major new poll of European universities has revealed.

While a lack of government backing and difficulties communicating with minority groups are cited as significant barriers to improving diversity, insufficient academic support is also listed as a major obstacle in a survey of 164 higher education institutions by the European University Association (EUA), whose initial results will be shared at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference.

According to the INVITED poll, almost all institutions had a diversity strategy in place or under development, but 51 per cent of universities say a lack of consensus or support within the academic community for schemes to improve gender, socio-economic and ethnic minority representation within both staff and students was a challenge.

Some 24 per cent say internal support had never been a problem, while 10 per cent claim that this stumbling block has been overcome.

Yet only 13 per cent of respondents identify a lack of buy-in from university leadership as a challenge, with 67 per cent stating that senior management backed diversity initiatives.

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, policy coordinator at the Brussels-based EUA, said there was “still some footwork required in convincing people about the value of diversity – though it is taken more seriously at leadership level”.

“Many academics are confronted by a more diverse student body, so [the issue] is more challenging for learning and teaching,” she explained.

Providing training to facilitate the teaching of heterogeneous intakes could encourage more educators to embrace diversity, said Ms Claeys-Kulik. “Teachers need guidance in dealing with a diverse student body, for instance about inclusive assessment methods for students with disabilities, or what it means to teach someone from a refugee background who is still adapting to the culture of the host country­.”

On improving staff representation, Ms Claeys-Kulik said some might fear that diversity initiatives could reduce the role of merit in hiring and promotion decisions.

“We found examples in Germany and Finland where there is a rule, if two candidates hold equal qualifications and are at the same level academically, to give preference to the female candidate or the under-represented gender,” she said, adding that such policies seemed to be “more accepted”.

“But if you talk about quotas, people may feel that selection is not based on qualifications and things can become more controversial,” she said.

Culture change demanded policies “conceived with the academic community and leadership, rather than using a purely carrot-and-stick approach”, Ms Claeys-Kulik said.

When asked what extra external support was needed to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, 69 per cent of respondents mentioned more public funding, 58 per cent say extra staff training would be useful and 18 per cent feel that regulatory change, such as the introduction of quotas, would help.

The most common reason for launching a diversity or inclusivity drive was that it was an “explicit value” of the organisation, cited by 88 per cent of institutions. Some 64 per cent of survey respondents say it was a legal obligation, while 41 per cent say it is part of a student recruitment strategy and 38 per cent say it will help in hiring staff.

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