Turning talk on higher education diversity into action

In an era of mass higher education and globalised competition for students, resources and reputation, if universities are to be successful they need to draw on all parts of society when recruiting and supporting the development of both students and staff.

Universities are holding themselves back, most visibly with their inability to promote women into senior academic and administrative roles at a rate comparable to female participation at undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral and early career academic level.

Barriers to gender equality are only the most obvious ways in which universities are failing to find, recruit and reward those who could best contribute to delivering on the diverse missions of universities across Europe.

These barriers apply with both students and staff. When we think beyond gender to ethnicity, disability, sexuality and gender identity the scale of the challenge is magnified, especially when we consider intersectionality, the effects of being in more than one of the classes protected by law on equality grounds.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals commit us to “ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university” (SDG 4.3). Similar commitments are found as the first point in the European Pillar of Social Rights adopted in November 2017.

The most inclusive universities are likely to achieve more, not only because they are best able to find and nurture talent, but also because innovations in learning and in the generation of knowledge are likely to be better advanced through the engagement of more diverse groups.

Formal commitments to equality, enshrined in legislation, are important but insufficient to support diverse groups to thrive equally.

Actions not words

Universities in Europe increasingly recognise why they must recommit themselves to foster more diverse populations of students and employees. But this does not make it easy to follow through.

Key decision-makers in university management teams, among deans, heads of department and leaders in service delivery, were often not selected for their capacity and commitment to make universities more diverse.

Furthermore, as Sara Ahmed argues in her influential 2012 book On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life, it is relatively easy to adopt the posture and policies of a diverse university without following up with the actions and culture that are needed to deliver – the institutional equivalent of virtue signalling.

In June 2016 the Irish Higher Education Authority adopted recommendations which require that panels appointing university presidents should as far as possible shortlist an equal number of men and women and apply a criterion for appointment of ‘demonstrable experience of leadership in advancing gender equality’.

These measures notwithstanding, Ireland remains an outlier in never having had a women university president when European universities generally have been increasing the proportion of women heads, which is now above 20%.

For future wellbeing and prosperity, it is particularly important that higher education institutions are able to draw on the full range of potential candidates among their student populations where, traditionally, those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, those with disabilities and those from ethnic minorities have been less likely to apply to leading universities and make up a smaller proportion of university populations than their prevalence in society as a whole.

Widening access

Across Europe the routes into higher education are quite diverse, with some countries operating nominally open access policies which filter out students less able for the programmes after one or two years of study and exams, with others operating selective admissions into smaller programmes based largely on performance at secondary level.

In Ireland, where a selective system operates, there is a long-standing national policy of positive measures to offer reduced higher education entry requirements to applicants from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and to those with disabilities. The Higher Education Access Route, or HEAR, and the Disability Access Route to Education, or DARE, schemes have been very successful in increasing participation among targeted groups.

However, it is clear that access routes by themselves are insufficient and that these must be accompanied by other measures, including public commitments to inclusiveness, building of relationships with targeted secondary schools, financial support, adaptation of learning and assessment, orientations and peer networks.

It is fair to say that during a period of austerity and significant reductions in state funding for higher education, no Irish university has been able to devote all the resources it would wish to such initiatives.

Nevertheless, participation among under-represented groups has been growing as a percentage of all students in Ireland at a time when overall student numbers have also been growing.

When we add in the representation of mature entry students (many of whom were unable to take advantage of higher education at school leaving age), University College Dublin, for example, has a student population of under-represented groups of close to 30%.

For universities to act effectively on the diversity imperative requires leaders who are willing to give priority to inclusive policies within strategic plans, but also to set down governance structures and implementation mechanisms which act beyond the level of strategy to change the organisational culture of higher education.

From an institutional perspective there is an increasing trend to address issues of inclusion and diversity through bringing together staff equality issues (traditionally a human resource matter) with student access arrangements for under-represented groups.

With such commitments and actions the lived experience of universities could reflect the kind of inclusiveness, celebration and harnessing of diversity which can enhance achievements of individuals and institutions but, as yet, is still more talked about than achieved.

Colin Scott is vice president for equality, diversity and inclusion, University College Dublin, Ireland. Email: