Diversity within higher education is a topic that has been cropping up in national and trade press over the past few years, and becomes a particularly important talking point at the start of each academic year. But is any significant change being made?
If you have read today’s headlines, reporting that Oxford and Cambridge are actually moving backwards in terms of the social mobility of their student population, it would seem that the answer is no. The clout of these Russell Group universities positions them to valiantly lead the way in this area. But beyond sprucing up the old prospectus with emotive phrases and colourful images…how should they go about this?
By now it is no secret that diversity drives innovation, creativity and gives organisations (education and business alike) a competitive advantage. Influential companies like Google and Facebook have been pioneers in implementing mandatory training programmes to make staff aware of their implicit biases and by adjusting the recruitment process to even the playing field.
Many universities have taken note and scaled these practices in an attempt to solidify a diversity mind-set among staff and students. While this is a brilliant gesture, to some universities it is just that: a gesture. A box-ticking exercise.
From my experience working in higher education diversity and inclusion, the problem of diversity being minimalised to a job title or a metric can come down to either unmotivated leadership or an overburdened workforce.
Something more is needed to pull these institutions into the 21st century, lest they risk being left behind by students who choose alternatives that are cheaper and offer more diversity in staff, students, curriculum and learning styles.
So what unique practices do they have in place to address these equally unique issues?
Well, with some national research funding now being contingent on a university’s holding of an Athena SWAN award, most are completing lengthy applications which consist of analysing data on staff and student demographics and making plans for improving areas over coming years. There is much debate around the usefulness of these charter marks, and particularly over their link to research funding, which could result in female academics being further disadvantaged.
A programme for which there is very little, if any, debate is widening participation. The statistics reported in recent articles indicate a need for more robust strategies for inclusion that aim to interact with pupils who might otherwise not see the university (or university in general) as a viable option.
There is certainly still room for innovation in this area, and time is of the essence!