Diversity-related questions low on Africa’s research agenda

With the exception of South Africa, African academics are lagging behind the Global North in conducting research and publishing work done about diversity-related topics.

This is one of the findings of a study about diversity research in higher education titled, ‘The semantics of diversity in higher education: Differences between the Global North and Global South’, that was published in the International Journal of Higher Education Research.

It was authored by Pedro Pineda from the United Kingdom-based University of Bath and Shweta Mishra at the International Center for Higher Education Research, University of Kassel, in Germany.

Providing context, Professor Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid at Cairo’s National Research Centre, said that with the “difficult political and social challenges surrounding diversity and its related issues, including access, inclusion, equity, race and gender, it is not surprising to see African academics sitting in the back seat [as far as] performing and publishing [research focused on] diversity studies”.

Africa in the back seat?

The study calculated the proportion of articles on diversity-related topics in relation to the total number of published articles on higher education in Scopus, Elsevier’s abstract and citation database.

The figures showed that ‘diversity-related issues in higher education’ is mostly a discourse discussed by the authors in the Global North, especially those from English-speaking countries.

Specifically, the United States and Canada lead in the number and proportion of publications on diversity-related topics, calculated based on the total output of publications on higher education in each region in 2019 (176, 1.2% of publications), followed by the United Kingdom and Ireland (31, 0.60%), Oceania (198, 0.67%) and Europe (164, 0.14%).

In Asia (12, 0.06%), Africa (5, 0.14%), Latin America (5, 0.13%) and the Middle East (7, 0.12%), only a small proportion of the total publications focus on diversity issues in higher education.

“Scholars in Latin America, Africa (with the exception of South Africa), Asia or the Middle East appear to be less engaged in using the semantics of diversity as used by the academics in the Global North,” the study noted.

South Africa and diversity

“In Africa, a vast majority of articles (42 out of 50) on diversity have been published by scholars from South Africa focusing on issues of access and equity in connection with digital education as well as the lack of demographic representation in higher education, thus emphasising the need to expand higher education access,” the study pointed out.

“Additional topics are race and gender. These issues reflect the commitment of the government to reforming higher education based on the principles of equity and access against the background of the country’s long history of apartheid,” the study explained.

South Africans’ volume of work on diversity is exceptional in the African region and, despite its long history of institutionalised racial segregation, South African universities seem to connect well to the model of diversity which is quite prominent in Western countries. This is likely a result of its cultural and linguistic linkages to Western countries resulting from its early colonisation by the Dutch and the British, according to the study.

Diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Roberta Malee Bassett, the global lead for tertiary education, education global practice at the World Bank, told University World News: “Equity is a major challenge across Sub-Saharan Africa, as the pipeline narrows considerably from secondary to tertiary education, with average access rates below 10% across the continent. The vast majority of spaces in universities are taken by students from families with incomes in the top quintiles of their countries.

“Expanded access (and the resultant skills development across a larger population of young adults) remains an issue that must be prioritised across the African continent,” Bassett said.

“Inclusion is even more difficult, since the concept generally involves expanded access for students with disabilities and other barriers that make accessing traditional institutions and academic programmes quite difficult,” Bassett added. “That is a major challenge as well.

“Pluralism may be the issue with the strongest traction in Sub-Saharan Africa, as many nations embrace diversity of populations and ideas, internationalisation efforts and regional collaboration opportunities,” Bassett said.

“Diversity of thought and acceptance of differences seems quite robust across the higher education landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa,” she pointed out.

“Some of the key challenges facing equity, inclusion and pluralism at African universities include entrenched opinions about what constitutes fairness and equity and reliance on historic definitions of merit and processes (such as high stakes university admissions exams) that make expanded access extremely challenging for people outside the elite segments of society.

“Inclusion of students and staff with disabilities adds another layer of challenge which includes commitment to investing in the renovations of physical infrastructure and the provision of accommodation support for students with special needs,” Bassett said.

“These are time- and resource-intensive efforts and require focused commitment to achieve,” she emphasised.

A societal responsibility

“There are so many effective initiatives that can promote greater equity in access and success in tertiary education,” Bassett said.

“[These include] from academic bridge efforts from secondary to tertiary education, to financial support, to [the provisioning] of information on opportunities in and benefits from higher education for students and families, to campus-based learning laboratories and coaching and student services made available throughout student enrolment periods,” she explained.

Asked what should be done to deal with challenges facing equity, inclusion and pluralism at African universities, Bassett said: “This is a massive question that requires a coordinated effort on the part of society, students and families, the academic community and the political leadership to resolve.

“From asking more of the higher education sector to passing regulations and laws that codify requirements for equity and inclusion to be embedded in the social fabric at all levels, society as a whole needs to play a part in expanding opportunities and overcoming barriers to real equity and inclusion,” she concluded.