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Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Education Institutions

October 12, 2021

Does diversity figure in your 2022 strategy? We're not talking about diversification of focus on key markets, to make sure you're not overly reliant on recruiting students from China, for example. Nor are we talking about just setting stats for racial, sexual or gender diversity in recruitment., and then considering it a job done when the targets are hit.

We have written before about how diversity without inclusion is just superficial and achieves little of any note. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are clear- broad access to education means broad access to opportunity. In a fair and just society, education that simply reinforces existing privilege must be consigned to history.

This is not easy, and it doesn't only plague high-income countries. The issues at play are complex, and we could go in any number of directions, from anti-racism education, accepting a broader range of entry criteria, scholarships, community outreach programmes and the rest.

We are going to take it as a given that we all understand why diversity and equity of access to education is essential in a just world. We are going to assume that it is obvious, that when some among us are excluded from opportunity through everything from historical injustice to present day bias, we lose the opportunity to belong to a world where everyone can contribute the best versions of themselves to the higher purposes of a more conscious and sustainable society.

For those of us in the world of education, thinking about how best to support this vision at an institutional level and to do our bit to make things better, here are a few ideas to get us started.

Loans, grants and funding are only the start

A prospective student is the first in their family to go to college. Their family lacks the generational wealth others have been able to accrue, and they live in a country in which further education is not free. Your institution awards her a scholarship, or a preferential loan which can be deferred for many years, and that is a good thing. But what about the experience ahead? You have opened the door, but what happens when she walks through and into the culture, content, curriculum and career outcomes?

A curriculum in which we can see something of ourselves

Academia for centuries has been run by old, white men. Generally with beards. That may not quite be the case today (there are fewer beards), but the lens through which academia views the world has not quite caught up. For BIPOC learners, for example, we must imagine sitting in a lecture of engineering, history or maths and seeing nothing of their own story in the telling, nor anyone who looks like them held up as the ideal.

In K-12 education, Wales has made the teaching of Black History mandatory in every school from 2022. Scotland has embedded LGBT issues, history and identity across its whole curriculum. Movements to showcase diversity in the world of STEAM have meant more young people might see a scientist or architect who looks and lives like they do. There are good things happening, but not enough.

You see, hitting those recruitment stats is not enough. When our learners arrive on day one, they must feel as though they belong. Armed with a curriculum that truly reflects the history, society and diversity of our world, those targets will have substance. Know that the content and approach of your programmes means that no student is automatically disadvantaged by teaching practices or curricula, and you are on the right track.

Diversity training and the hidden curriculum

The hidden curriculum is unwritten. This is not the learning outcomes and the course content. These are the values, assumptions, beliefs and biases that impact the learning experience and potentially shape the way our learners think and see the world.

This is no small thing. The traditionally liberal world of the university academic is ripe for denial. "I'm not racist!" we hear them say. "I have no biases" they affirm. Because as intelligent, educated people, bias is surely impossible right? Racism and misogyny, homophobia and prejudice are all things for "other people", and the divide is plain and clearly defined.

No, of course not. We are all products of our own experiences, and the world in which we all grew up is grossly unfair. White privilege, and the male voice echo throughout our language, our literature, our history, our economy and the residues of what we see today.

When the civil rights act passed, when ant-discrimination laws came into effect, when wheelchair access to public buildings was made mandatory; though of course these were monumental events, only the most obvious, visible and superficial end of inequity and injustice was addressed.

Yes these meant that a more diverse selection of people could access education, it did not mean that access was equitable, or that it would meet their needs or understand their story when they got there. Opening the door is only one of many steps in truly supporting someone to walk through it.

The rest remained hidden to many, but painfully visible to those who lived the experience and became conscious from a young age that the colour of their skin or the way they expressed gender or sexuality had some kind of influence on their lives, and even more so when such areas intersected.

We have a unique responsibility in education to be the voice and critic of society in simultaneous form. That means getting down from the ivory tower and asking ourselves always- how can we be better? The courage and humility to explore our own identity beliefs, cultural assumptions and unconscious biases is something we can all do in various forms.

Anti-racism and diversity education is a must for all of us in education. From the recruiter to the marketer, the campus administrator to the curriculum writer, the teacher to the student. It is not a workshop, or a half day training with free sandwiches. It is a journey of unlearning, deep reflection and uncomfortable honesty. We owe it to the world to do better, always.

Listen and create space for diverse voices

The biggest pitfall of all of this is assuming we have all the answers. In building diversity into institutional strategies and operations, we must understand that this is a fluid situation. To make room for growth, we must create space for the voices of those we serve. A feedback form asking "how are we doing on diversity" just ain't cutting it.

Share the voices of diverse learners in your marketing. Create opportunities to share different interpretations of content and experience in the classroom, and on campus. Broaden the credentials we ask for in accessing our institutions, and understand that not everyone can be defined by their life so far. Opportunity is kinetic - find new ways for an applicant to show us their motivation and potential, and to be supported in doing so.

Where do we start?

We will be covering this issue in more depth as we find cases and examples of good practice, but there is so much support out there. In anti-racist teaching and curriculum design, we have sites like this and this for K12 schools. For further and higher education, we have this and a great overview of embedding anti-racism in the curriculum and teaching practice from Brown University.

In improving diversity and inclusion through recruitment practices, we have some good examples from the University of Edinburgh and King's College of London.

If you are working in this area, we would love to talk to you in one of our #NEOchats to share your insights with our wider community. Please, do reach out!

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