WAHED Voices: Leadership support is crucial for diversity in higher education

25/11/2019 | News

Universities in Europe are increasingly attentive to the topic of diversity and inclusion; this has to a large extent been a process driven by the university leadership, giving the topic priority at the strategic level.

In Europe, the issue of social inclusion has been on the agenda for several years. In 2005 European ministers for higher education put this on the agenda of the Bologna Process with the ambition to making quality higher education accessible to all. Moreover, specific national policies regarding gender equality and ensuring access for disabled persons gave incentives as well as obligations for universities to address diversity issues. As societal awareness about diversity has grown and become more detailed, the awareness and policies of universities have expanded: The refugee crisis of 2015 saw attention to ethnic and religious diversity rise, and there has also been a steady growth in the understanding of diversity in sexual orientation and gender identity.

Universities have been an active part of this agenda. For this reason, the European University Association, representing more than 800 universities and national university associations across Europe, launched the INVITED Project primarily to present an evidence base through a survey about how universities where approaching the topic and how they saw the situation. 160 universities from across the continent responded to the survey, and the results were complemented by a series of in-depth interviews. Although these clearly represent universities that are engaged in the issue, the results give us a good insight into the dynamics of universities developing and implementing diversity strategies.

One clear result from the survey and the interviews was the role of leadership in promoting the agenda. A large majority of survey respondents indicated that the topic of diversity was managed at the central level – not a given in many European system with highly independent faculties – and only in very few cases were there strategies at faculty or departmental level but none for the whole institution. The implementation of the strategy is also led centrally with a sizeable majority of indicating that there is a vice rector responsible for the topic and centrally located staff dedicated to the daily administration. Moreover, almost 90% of respondents indicated that the topic was an explicit value for their institution.

Apart from the values, the drivers for developing diversity strategies are many. For research intensive universities that are engaged in a global competition for talent, being inclusive is a way to ensuring excellence. Attracting the best researchers and students from across the globe requires that universities have open and inclusive environments that give space to the ensuing diversity, and it is central that the university leadership explicitly articulates the link between excellence and diversity. Demography can be another driver, as cohorts are getting smaller in many European countries, universities cannot afford to lose potential students and need to work in a targeted way to make the learning environment inclusive for all.

In order to implement these strategies, the interviews revealed a common set of structures within the university. In addition to the administrative staff assigned to the topic, institutions have centrally managed steering committees or similar bodies that gather institutional stakeholders who wants to take the topic forward. This allows for local initiatives and good practice to be used for the institution as a whole. At times, these committees also comprise researchers who do systematic work on diversity and inclusion. Researchers are also engaged in many institutions through projects and through research institutes that provide evidence in order to inform the strategic development of the university as well as developing practical methods to make the learning environment more inclusive.

It seems clear from the results of the INVITED Project that a significant number of universities are deeply engaged in promoting diversity and inclusion. In order to do this, university leadership takes a leading role in developing strategies and structures that take the topic forward within the institution, but they are also importantly articulating the reasons and the importance of ensuring open and diverse institution within a societal context where awareness about these issues is growing.

With kind thanks to Dr Thomas Ekman Jørgensen, Senior Policy Coordinator at the European University Association for contributing this opinion piece. 

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