Ending inequity: The embrace of humanity is non-negotiable

Cultural diversity, affirmative action and employment equity programmes of decades past appear to have been re-labelled equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) programmes in international organisational communication and culture discourse.

Within that ambit, “the colour-coded racial classification system” which was manufactured in the United States of America in the 17th century, according to JR Feagin’s 2006 book, Systemic Racism: A theory of oppression, became the basis for the resulting inequities in the distribution of socio-economic social services and resources.

But I contend that EDI is not about crossing the segregated divide between black and white communities. Instead it is a political economic agenda with an underlying for-profit agenda based on an “exclusionary politics of the colonial past”, as noted in Hélène Périvier and Réjane Sénac’s 2018 paper “The new spirit of neoliberalism: Equality and economic prosperity”.

The current EDI agendas are narrowly focused on recruitment within higher education institutions. Prioritising selected categories of preferred hiring groups such as women and the aged with ethnic minorities as a third preference in recruitment practice, as noted in the 2009 Society for Human Resource Management Report, suggests that equity and inclusion are elusive.

Holistic framework

International higher education institutions – and corporates – should develop a holistic EDI framework that strategically places an emphasis on a sustainable EDI programme across all facets of institutional growth and expansion that will allow stakeholders to lead in their endeavours to humanise higher education.

EDI’s embrace of humanity is a non-negotiable imperative. My travels through various world regions and among a diverse world community demographic have produced a rich lived experience through a period during which it was necessary to challenge EDI agendas as political constructs and the “politics of colour”.

My view is that EDI policies and institutional focus should transcend race and gender as preferred recruitment categories.

Moreover, the focus of EDI programmes on the recruitment of potential employees from across the racial and gendered boundaries is misdirected. It should instead have a broader mandate, with planned implementation of EDI principles across institutional departments. EDI advocates should also expand the EDI dialogue to include pedagogic components.

EDI initiatives should enrich learners and learning, monitor quality education design, indigenise the curriculum, inspire leadership, assess academic impact and foster glocal community development. The following trajectory of innovative context-based solutions in world regions illustrates multiple EDI applications beyond recruitment drives.

The end of apartheid, South Africa

I worked in South Africa in the lead-up to the end of apartheid. In advancing the student development portfolio on a seven-campus South African university (formerly known as Vista University), it was important to pursue a community partnership engagement model.

At the time, the imminent end of apartheid made it easier to engage in a negotiated, country-wide respectful dialogue on the future of higher education within agreed norms of civil engagement.

During that period, EDI was a lived experience. The oppressive apartheid lens framed collective notions of past, present and future in black and white. EDI took many forms at the time. However, EDI constructs did not provide the guidelines necessary to embrace humanity.

Lessons from Canada

In Canada, Ross Paul, president of the University of Windsor, facilitated an actively engaged EDI programme (then labelled cultural diversity) and commissioned cultural diversity workshops for the university community in the early 2000s.

The cultural diversity dialogue was sensitive, challenging, confrontational and traumatic as it interrogated discriminatory labels including the use of the ‘N’ word.

Inspirational institutional leadership and the cultural diversity campus-wide dialogue led me (as course instructor) to develop an innovative three-part course assessment strategy.

The first part of the intercultural communication course assessment required students to select, research and report their findings about their frequent use of any offensive, derogatory labels in their daily communication within and across diverse cultural communities. They were required to submit a one-page reflective response, present their findings to their classmates and state their decision about its future use.

The first five minutes of the discussion forum was met with silence because they were shocked by their discoveries. The outcome was that they agreed to never use the terms again, and to educate others, starting with their immediate families and social circles.

At Dalhousie University, also in Canada, EDI found expression in the implementation of the senate-approved student evaluation of teaching policy. The policy encouraged transparency of student evaluation scores on the university website.

I introduced constructive feedback as a requirement in student evaluations of teaching and encouraged instructors to also provide constructive feedback to students in learning assessments.

These actions encouraged a diverse and inclusive range of learner-instructor perspectives to enhance learning success. This created an open, transparent space for stakeholders to engage in respectful dialogue about constructive criticism.

At the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, the associate vice-president in the new department of teaching and student analytics was introduced to a collaborative English language quality education design project.

This initiative utilised EDI principles to form collaborative partnerships among the arts faculty and the federated colleges: Campion College (which led the initiative), Luther College and the First Nations University of Canada. This initiative swiftly translated into an endorsement of equity, diversity and inclusion principles in student learning.

Early deliberations to develop a holistic framework for the indigenised curriculum in collaboration with the chair of the Indigenous Advisory Circle and the chair of the Reconciliation Committee was another EDI initiative co-led by the associate vice-president in the department of teaching and student analytics to advance quality education design. The department of teaching and student analytics was abolished in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Negotiated solutions in Australia

In Australian universities, including Flinders University, Monash University, La Trobe University, Deakin University and Bond University where I was working between 2009 and 2016, EDI was interpreted as the implementation of cultural diversity training projects.

These projects promoted sustained and respectful dialogue among cultural communities, reminding institutional stakeholders that their common retort, “go back where you came from”, would not be tolerated, and that respectfully negotiated solutions to cultural diversity roadblocks lie in the “deconstruction of whiteness”.

Our universal mission

In conclusion, equity, diversity and inclusion principles should champion the humanisation of international higher education. It is our collective embrace that will shape and determine the essence of our service to humanity.

Advocating EDI requires commitment to upholding the freedoms and rights of all stakeholder communities, ensuring that the freedoms and rights of any single stakeholder community does not violate the freedoms and rights of others.

I see international higher education as a right, serving humanity through its embrace of moral upliftment for the public good.

Encouraging communities to aspire to their highest level of humanity should be a universal mission.

The enhanced quality of life of our single humanity delicately rests on our collective response and commitment to subvert the dominant colonial paradigm and settler community perspectives in order to reverse centuries-old inequities in the distribution of health, education, land, social and financial resources.

Dr Fay Patel is an academic, researcher and international higher education consultant in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Patel was the former associate vice-president, teaching and student analytics, at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. She also contributed to the UNESCO Forums (by invitation of UNESCO Bangkok) in Bangkok, Thailand and in Chengdu, China; as external peer reviewer in the World Bank quality assurance project Bangladesh; as senior case manager at the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in Melbourne, Australia; and as an independent reviewer in the Peer Review Portal project in Tasmania, Australia. Patel is the editor of the book (2021) Power Imbalance, Bullying and Harassment in Academia and the Glocal (Local and Global) Workplace.