Diversity, equity and inclusion in European universities

Because diverse environments are more creative, diversity drives the enhancement of education and research, says a European University Association report based on a survey of 159 institutions from 36 European systems. A holistic approach is needed to the many initiatives under way in universities, and capacity building and staff training are critical.

These are the key messages of the report Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in European Higher Education Institutions, published on 20 November 2019. The authors are Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik, Thomas Ekman Jørgensen and Henriette Stöber.

The study sees diversity as an opportunity. More specifically, regarding a holistic approach: “There are many different initiatives going on within institutions, and it is important to connect all these dots into a whole,” it says.

Regarding capacity building and staff training: “Supporting diversity requires that there is sufficient awareness among staff – those who teach in diverse environment, those that lead diverse research teams, and those that take care of the administration.”

The importance of diversity

“Diversity is a key concern for universities. It is a condition for excellence and for facing competition in various parts of universities’ missions,” writes Professor Michael Murphy, president of the European University Association or EUA, in the foreword.

“Universities that want to retain their high levels of excellence need to be able to attract talent at all levels, and in a globalised world this means being open to diversity. Diverse research environments are demonstrably more creative and produce better results; diverse learning environments are likewise more stimulating than homogenous ones.

“Consequently, promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in Europe’s universities supports institutional growth and capacity building to serve better the needs of European society.”

Universities cannot be exclusive at a time when society is evolving fast and awareness of dimensions of diversity grows – cultural, gender or sexual orientation. “University values of openness and tolerance demand that we celebrate diversity and be inclusive,” Murphy says.

The data collection exercise was part of the EUA-led INVITED project which aims to support universities in developing strategies towards equity, diversity and inclusion. After a survey elicited responses from 159 universities from 36 European systems, follow-up interviews were conducted with 12 institutions from 11 countries from autumn 2018 to summer 2019.

Hot issues

Within transforming societies with changing demography, with technological development and the need for new skills, social diversity and inequality are hotly debated, and access to education and lifelong learning has become a high priority to ensure that no one is left behind.

The arrival of an increased number of refugees in Europe has contributed to more cultural diversity and more awareness of the topic, says the report. While the need for innovation has increased demand for highly skilled people, demographic decline and outgoing migration have put pressure on several European economies and social systems.

Internationalisation of higher education and research as well as student and staff mobility are a driver for diversity and have been increasing, which is expected to heighten cultural diversity on campus and creates the need to adapt curricula and methodologies.

“For about 40% of respondents, recruitment of students in general is a driver for equity, diversity and inclusion. In some cases, this is likely linked to the internationalisation agenda,” the report states.

Despite broad political commitments, only a few European countries have followed up with concrete action at the system level to foster social inclusion in higher education. “These include Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and, more recently, Croatia, which started developing a national strategy and policy measures.”

A strategic approach

Inclusiveness has become a strategic question for higher education institutions, the study finds. Many have acted to identify new ways to enable people from less-represented backgrounds to find a place in higher education.

The issue is often driven by the university’s central leadership.

“At the central level, diversity, equity and inclusion are part of the main strategy of the institution in three out of four cases, but there are also specific, institution-wide strategies for the topic in more than half of the responding institutions,” says the report.

Often the direct support of the rector or a vice-rector has been a turning point in developing strategic aims. It allows experiences and practices from bottom-up initiatives to become policies and lead to cultural and structural changes.

“There is a strong tendency for strategies to be led by the institutional leadership. Strategies are articulated by the central governing bodies (78% of survey respondents), often with direct involvement of the rector’s cabinet (68% of respondents).”

Nearly 70% of institutions have one or more vice-rectors who work with the topic, and 40% have a vice-rector with a specific responsibility for equity, diversity and inclusion. Likewise, 59% of respondents indicate that administrative staff at the central level are in charge of implementation, and 53% have a specific office in place.

Many institutions either have research departments dedicated to producing evidence to support policies, or generally use research and do projects on the topics. “In the survey, 59% of respondents mention research on the topic as a way to overcome barriers, and 61% do specific projects,” the report continues.

It is clear that respondents to the survey perceive inclusiveness and embracing diversity as an explicit value for their institution and a part of their social responsibility. But external drivers do also play an important role, according to the study.

In some systems, diversity-related indicators are part of the performance-based funding system or of performance contracts of institutions with the state. In a few cases, the survey reveals that there are quotas for students and staff from diverse backgrounds. Some 64% of respondents indicated having legal obligations linked to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dimensions of diversity

Guidance, counselling and mentoring are the measures most often used by institutions to facilitate access of students to higher education. Accessibility – including to infrastructure, materials and learning – is a second measure, followed by assurance of non-discrimination.

Part-time study and flexible curricula are other instruments, and childcare is provided by more than 40% of respondents. Preparatory courses were mentioned by 48% and recognition of prior learning was mentioned by 45% of respondents as important measures.

Financial support is often provided to help students from lower socio-economic backgrounds or international (particularly non-EU) students. Guidance, counselling and mentoring are also measures most often used to support students from various backgrounds during their studies.

Staff training is an important measure to foster inclusiveness, according to the study. While 67% of institutions indicate offering training to teaching staff on inclusive methods and tools, only 23% have similar training in place for non-academic staff.

At the same time, lack of awareness and of specific training was mentioned as a continuing challenge by 65% of responding institutions. “While staff training might be available, it is often voluntary and in addition to the usual work, or only mandatory for new staff.”


The two top barriers, resources and awareness, are followed by a number of challenges that are relevant for somewhat more than half of the respondents.

Of the survey respondents, 41% indicate that lack of qualified staff is a barrier. “Day-to-day administration is not necessarily seen as the biggest challenge, but resources are also needed to build capacity, for instance through training, and for awareness-raising measures.”

In half of cases, “respondents do not only point to lack of awareness but lack of consensus or support, from within the community, which is arguably more difficult to manage.” Resources seem to be a persistent challenge, says the report.

As many as 58% of respondents said it continues to be a challenge to identify and reach students and staff from target groups, and 53% point to challenges regarding data collection.

Data collection is used to distinguish different groups needing support and to identify what these needs are, but only about 60% of respondents do this for students. For staff, 49% use data collection for detecting such groups among them, and 39% use it to identify their needs.

Between a third and a fourth of respondents indicated that lack of activities, strategic approach and leadership had been a challenge – but that it had been solved. “As many as 36% pointed to lack of concrete activities as a continuing challenge.

“A sizeable minority of 41% saw lack of government support as a barrier to working for equity, diversity and inclusion. However, a similar number (35%) indicated that this had either never been a problem or that the challenge had been solved,” according to the report.

By far the most popular methods to help overcome barriers were dialogue and training. Other suggestions pointed to more formal measures, including anti-discrimination policies and complaints procedures and development of a code of conduct.

Conclusions – What needs to be done

While there are many valuable initiatives, taking a qualitative step forward for equity, diversity and inclusion would have to “connect all the dots, creating linkages within an institution as well as between institutions and systems. The goal must be a holistic strategy ultimately strengthening the inclusiveness of European higher education systems.”

Other challenges identified by respondents to the INVITED survey were lack of awareness among the university community about diversity and inclusion, followed by a lack of funding and other resources as well as the difficulty to identify the target groups.

Training is needed for administrative, teaching and research staff, to raise awareness levels and provide concrete tools and approaches for addressing diversity.

“Part of 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,” the report says.

A holistic system-level approach, rather than looking at universities in isolation, is key, the report concludes. Exchange of experience and peer learning between universities as well as at the level of policy-makers and administrators can be a useful tool to inspire this dialogue.

“New policies and strategies then need to be adapted to respond to specific system contexts and challenges.”