Make ‘social capital’ key to inclusion efforts, says v-c

Investing in structures and processes that allow students and staff to develop their own relationships is the best way to avoid woolly diversity work, conference hears

July 4, 2023
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Universities should focus their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts on helping staff and students to develop relationships that bridge disciplines and socioeconomic divides, sector leaders have said.

Building initiatives around social capital – a sociological concept that describes the strength of relationships within given communities – is a good way to be inclusive in a practical way, according to Eunice Simmons, vice-chancellor of the University of Chester, which draws half its students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Just that little phrase ‘social capital‘, because it’s not that well understood, it’s just got people asking questions,” she said during a panel at the Times Higher Education Europe Universities Summit, hosted by the University of Warsaw. “They learn to debate, they learn to present, they learn to be in very uncomfortable situations.”

Aside from student and staff networks for specific communities, the university has also run challenge groups for the past three years, made up of students and staff who are encouraged to question procedures and policies from a given perspective.

“They can look at any process in the university and they can challenge its equity and its fairness – who it refers to and why it was designed like that,” said Professor Simmons, who joined Chester after serving as deputy vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University.

Thomas Auf der Heyde, vice-president for international outreach at Constructor University, a private university in Bremen, Germany, said universities must have “really aggressive” policies to ensure they had a diverse faculty that reflected their student bodies.

That meant also investing in more sophisticated conflict management processes on campus, he added, as a more varied staff makeup would be likely to lead to greater disagreement. He said “glib discussions about inclusion” also risked “obfuscating” more difficult debates about brain drain from less developed countries.

Addressing the audience directly, Debora Kayembe, the rector of the University of Edinburgh, asked universities to “please stop” paying lip-service to diversity without taking practical steps to change their own cultures.

She said her own experience of being assaulted as a refugee in Scotland a decade ago had forced her to open a dialogue with society there and added that it was important for university leaders to have “lived experience” of diversity before preaching to the institutions they managed.

Speaking on the same panel, Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, added that in the coming decades universities would have to balance creating safe spaces for students with preparing them to succeed in increasingly polarised societies.

Professor Auf der Heyde, who has spent decades working in higher education and government in South Africa, said universities had had a relatively easy ride over the last 20 years when it came to inclusion, but as wider divides arrived on campuses there was a risk that work on inclusivity could become “submerged” by the struggle to bridge yawning gaps between different parts of society.

“The kind of social consensus in which universities have been operating for last two decades is beginning to disintegrate, and I don’t think it’s going to be very easy for universities to define their role in all this,” he said.

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