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University group calls for systemic diversity strategies

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European University Association responds to survey findings of a ‘lack of awareness’ of diversity issues

Public authorities, institutions and staff must work together on “holistic system-level” strategies to increase diversity in higher education institutions, the European University Association has concluded after conducting a survey on the issue.

A survey report published on 20 November summarised responses from 159 institutions in 36 countries. Among these, 85 per cent said equity, diversity and inclusion were addressed centrally in their institution’s strategy or policies, alongside 48 per cent at faculty level and 41 per cent at departmental level.

The most common reasons given for the topics’ importance were that they were: explicit values for the institution (88 per cent), a social obligation (76 per cent) and a legal obligation (64 per cent).

Nevertheless, 65 per cent of respondents said both a lack of resources and a lack of awareness remain challenges to making their institutions more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

The most-reported diversity issues among students, academic and non-academic staff were disability, gender, ethnic and cultural background, socio-economic background and sexual identity.

Putting the findings into context, EUA staff members Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, Thomas Ekman Jørgensen and Henriette Stöber stressed in their report that “only a few” European countries have taken concrete system-level actions to foster social inclusion in higher education—Austria, Croatia, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden.

The authors cited institutional attempts to promote diversity, such as opening positions only to women in the first six months. But they found survey respondents “seem to prioritise measures that aim at structural and cultural change”.

In light of the findings, the authors called for strengthened dialogue between universities, policymakers, funders, public authorities and stakeholder organisations to develop system-level strategies. Such an approach would be more effective than using a “carrot and stick approach” such as financial pressures, they suggested.

“While there are many very valuable initiatives, programmes and projects, the challenge for taking a qualitative step forward on the topic of equity, diversity and inclusion is to connect all the dots, creating linkages within an institution as well as between institutions and systems,” the authors wrote. “A holistic system-level approach, rather than looking at higher education institutions in isolation, is key.”

Universities themselves must push diversity to the forefront of public discourse, the authors suggested. “Part of this awareness raising would be to continue to move the discourse on diversity from a challenge to be solved to a precondition for quality and excellence,” they wrote. Numerous universities have “already explicitly taken this position”, but more need to do so.

Building on diversity would benefit society and also be a boon for universities, EUA president Michael Murphy wrote in his foreword. “Diverse research environments are demonstrably more creative and produce better results; diverse learning environments are likewise more stimulating than homogenous ones,” he said.