Report calls for diversity audits across all subjects

Science and maths courses should touch on topics such as gender, says the NUS. Jack Grove reports

August 11, 2011

The need to reflect "diversity" in course content might seem obvious in the arts and humanities, but a new report from the National Union of Students argues that it is also essential in other areas, such as science, mathematics and engineering.

The NUS claims that too many courses are geared towards the idea of a "traditional student", which creates difficulties for those from under-represented backgrounds.

In its report Liberation, Equality and Diversity in the Curriculum, the union says the introduction of topics relating to gender, lesbian and gay matters, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities would make courses more "inclusive".

Such changes would help to improve retention of students from minority groups and raise their satisfaction levels, which are generally lower than those of the general populace.

"Some reluctance to change...may be due to the idea that the whole system should not be changed just for the benefit of a small group of students," the report says. "Actually, an inclusive curriculum benefits all students. By enabling students to reflect on issues of liberation, equality, and diversity, an inclusive curriculum better prepares all students for life in a diverse society."

Science and maths courses could also include discussion of gender or race issues, the report suggests.

Usman Ali, vice-president (higher education) of the NUS, said: "Diversity can be incorporated in many subjects. I hated biology (at school)...but if I was taught that it was (al-Hasan) Ibn Al-Haytham that invented many foundations of science, including the mechanics of vision and perception, my interest would definitely have been there."

Other subjects where diversity could be introduced include architecture, chemistry, electrical engineering, physics and geosciences. For example, those teaching architecture could explore how cultural constructions of gender had influenced the design of buildings.

Estelle Hart, NUS national women's officer, said: "In the classroom women are often invisible, curricula are dominated by the writing and ideas of men, with women's issues and thoughts seen as an optional add-on if they are mentioned at all."

However, Donald Braben, honorary professor of earth sciences at University College London, thought the idea was "ridiculous". "We should not expect a science teacher to take 'gender politics' into account in designing the intellectual content of a course because he or she will probably have little or no expertise in this complex area," he said.

"A science teacher's responsibility is to inspire the next generation, inform them of progress in a field and encourage them to think critically. They are not politicians."

The report recommends that departments conduct a "diversity audit" in which tutors would "evaluate case histories or other course content for representation of different types of people and content".

It concludes: "It is important to frame diversity audits as a chance for enhancing the curriculum rather than an intrusion into academic freedom."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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