Dire need to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in HE

There is a need to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education institutions across Africa to create a sense of belonging for every student and to advance transformation.

This emerged during a public dialogue hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP) on 10 October with the theme, ‘Refocusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion: leadership lessons from higher education institutions’.

The AAP was co-created in 2016 by Michigan State University (MSU) in the United States and African thought leaders. It is a consortium of Michigan State University and 10 leading African universities.

In her address, Phethiwe Matutu, the CEO of Universities South Africa, a representative body of 26 South African public universities, referred to a research report of the Ministerial Oversight Committee on Transformation in the South African Public Universities that reiterates the commitment to Africa’s transformation through diversity and inclusion.

The two objectives of the report are to analyse the current state of transformation of higher education in South Africa and to advise the minister on the appropriate policies and strategies that will assist in expediting the pace of transformation into the higher education sector.

The 2023 report, titled The State of Transformation in South Africa’s Universities, was prepared by the Human Sciences Research Council through a critical review of two years of institutional annual reports, those for 2018 and 2019, which were provided by the country’s public universities; and a study of the significant sample of writings and public media reports on the developments that have taken place in South African higher education since 2008 when an earlier committee focusing on discrimination and social cohesion made recommendations to the higher education minister.

According to Matutu, the report notes that, from a transformation perspective, all universities face challenges rooted in their origins and development, with some challenges perpetuated by historical disadvantages.

“There is a tendency in the historically disadvantaged universities to believe that the transformation imperative does not talk to them – to the extent where some did not submit reports that talk to transformation,” she said.

“Writers of the report purport that you need to address the transformation imperative, whether advantaged or previously disadvantaged. Funding for free higher education supports an increasing number of working-class and poor students [which means] all universities must address this.”

Transformation issues

Transformation-related issues universities should pay attention to include ensuring gender and ethnic linguistic equity, and diversity in staff and student bodies. They also have to equip graduates with skills and experiences that will empower them in the changing world of work, engage local government, industries and communities in their localities and, as engaged universities, work on a pact with them to maximise their potential.

To continuously deal with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education, the report’s researchers highlighted several ways that can foster transformation:

• A commitment to equity redress and diversity, and reporting on innovative approaches and practices;

• A commitment to relevance, and contributing to the development and reporting of relevant and innovative approaches and interventions;

• Emphasising equity and diversity matters;

• Emphasising relevance and the notion of transformation as development; and

• Adopting a compliance culture change without changing the approach to transformation.

Giving students a voice

In his presentation, Jabbar Bennett, the vice president and chief diversity officer at MSU, said that the institution fosters diversity and inclusion through activities like hiring and recruiting, research and grants, awards and programmes, education and development, and outreach and engagement.

“We create an annual report that talks about who are demographically represented and progress that we’ve made around diversity equity inclusion …” he said, adding that such initiatives are funded to make them happen.

“We organise work around diversity and ensure compliance in the hiring process of executives and our faculty, [we also have] a diversity research network that supports our faculty of colour and those who are engaging in diversity research. We provide an annual excellence diversity equity award where colleagues select nominees to participate and are awarded a cash incentive,” Bennett said.

While making her submission during the dialogue, Nontsikelelo Loteni, the director of the University of Pretoria's transformation office, explained that, as the legacies of the past are addressed to ensure transformation, there is also a need to think about securing the future through equity, diversity and inclusion.

“Some studies published last year about gender equality are interesting to look at. The findings of the first study conducted by the African Research Universities Alliance show that most universities still don’t have gender policies but all have [at least] one anti-discrimination policy,” she said.

Loteni added that a different study by UNESCO highlighted a different element of gender inclusion showing that few female students graduated in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines while male students, on the other hand, were not taking up psychology and education courses.

To meaningfully ensure that students’ voices and advocacy play an important role in institutional change around diversity, equity and inclusion, participants agreed that students should be given platforms to speak and be heard, direct enough resources to diversity and inclusion programmes, and create an environment in which a multiplicity of voices may define what diversity and inclusion and equity are.

Nancy Mungai, the director of research and extension at Egerton University in Kenya, said: “We must empower ourselves now to see what we must do continuously in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. We must also understand and define well the transformation we seek, to make it sustainable.”