Three key steps to equity in higher education

Most people feel that equity in higher education is a very important goal for staff and students. But there is a lot of insecurity and unease about how to get there. It doesn’t have to be that way.

An uphill view of a winding path along a cliff edge. There are two signs in the foreground that give warning to walkers to keep to the path to avoid a dangerous fall.
Pembrokeshire Coast Path

Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in academia is a bit like the signs I kept seeing on clifftop paths at a recent walk in Wales. They seem to encourage you to start your walk with zeal and conviction. And even though the endpoint may not be clear, the beginning of the path appears to hold an implicit promise of beautiful views and a positive experience. At the same time, you are warned in no uncertain terms of the risk of a fatal fall.

In contrast to setting off on a cliff walk – where most of us just go for it – when it comes to EDI in universities, it appears we see the potential danger more clearly than the lure of the path. This can lead to fear, confusion and trepidation for the individual, and needless stagnation for the institution. There are three steps that can help us move.

“For EDI in higher education, we have to stop denying there is a problem.”

The first is to agree that the goals of the journey are worthwhile. For EDI in higher education, this means we have to stop denying there is a problem. The evidence is overwhelming: it is much harder to progress and succeed for (prospective) staff and students who are from minority ethnic, and certain cultural or religious backgrounds, or who are disabled, who are women, who are LGBTQ+, who are the first in their family to enter higher education, or who have a combination of any of these characteristics.

This has been well researched, meticulously documented and widely reported – and it is a global phenomenon. For students, regardless of subject studied, the bias against them is there at every stage of their journey – from entry into and progression through university, through to finding a job. For staff, it is evident in relation to hiring, promotion, leadership opportunities, funding for enterprise, and students’ evaluation of teaching. The more competitive the university or the process, the more pronounced the issue.

And it goes beyond individuals or specific institutions. On a global scale, it has been demonstrated through randomised trials that there is bias against universities and knowledge produced in the Global South. The fact that the exact same publication supposedly from a university in the Global South is judged less highly than when reviewers are meant to believe it is from a Global North university, shows that the playing field is not level.

The conclusion is inevitable: we collectively have to face the reality of pervasive bias and subsequently strive to create a more equitable higher education environment.

Step two: we have to stop taking things so personally. When we are being told we are biased, we should accept this. Of course we are – everybody is! We have all been brought up with prejudices that have been repeated and reinforced over time and these have led to the perpetuation of collective and institutional bias. There can be huge liberation in the recognition that society is biased – and it is a prerequisite for change.

“The overwhelming majority of people want to be good to others and don’t intentionally discriminate.”

It also means we are not evil or bad as individuals. The overwhelming majority of people want to be good to others and don’t intentionally discriminate. But as a collective we still maintain structures that are in the way of true equity and prevent our institutions from being the best versions of themselves.

So we should stop feeling defensive and as if we are about to plunge off a cliff when confronted with the reality of inequity and unfairness. If we deny individual, societal and institutional bias, we send an implicit message that the system is fair, and that groups who have a harder time simply are not good enough.

The third step is that we just have to get started, or continue with conviction if we are on the path already. We don’t need to rely solely on our institutional leaders to show the way, or on our HR departments to devise and implement schemes and accompanying metrics – although those can be incredibly powerful.

“If we are willing to believe in the innate goodness of others, we can collectively try to implement the much-needed change.”

Any of us in a position of leadership, or who are simply allies as fellow staff and students, can make a difference on a daily basis. All we need is three things – curiosity, compassion and a small dose of courage. Curiosity about other people’s lived experiences, which provides an increased ability to listen. Compassion for ourselves and others, which leads to a willingness to engage and deal with difficult situations. And courage to stay on the path when we experience the inevitable discomfort of understanding the effects of our own preconceived notions on others. If we are willing to believe in the innate goodness of others, we can collectively try to implement the much-needed change and tolerate the inevitable mistakes while doing so.

We should step on the track with zeal and conviction. Universities, with their inquisitive nature, openness and tolerance, are superbly placed. If we do it together, we are unlikely to drop off a cliff. And even if we do, there will be someone or something to break our fall and get us back on the path of creating a more equitable, diverse and inclusive university to achieve excellence in everything we do.

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