Doing diversity differently means doing away with sticking plasters

At The Secret Life of Students on 15 February we're bringing together universities and SUs to think differently about diversity. Jim Dickinson sets out our stall

When we came to discuss the theme for this year’s Secret Life of Students event – drawing on all the debates, research and interactions we’ve had with universities and students ‘ unions over the past year – “diversity” stood out pretty early on.

Diversity is a major theme on the desks of student experience types, but also as an agenda that’s becoming increasingly difficult and complex to handle.

We say that not because we think that universities and their SUs are somehow not committed to making higher education and the wider student experience more equitable or fair – we say it because, notwithstanding small pockets of dismissiveness, denial and outright discrimination, at Wonkhe we see a whole sector wanting to do the right thing, but not always knowing what should be done, who should do it, in what way, and by when.

We see a sector struggling – with a declining unit of resource, with a student body that is rapidly growing in volume and diversity, with a culture rightly becoming more demanding of universities over EDI issues, and with a culture war and regulatory system that seems designed to damn universities if they adapt to the diversity they recruit, and condemn them if they don’t.

And we also see a sector that has in it thousands of students and staff yearning for change, where talented and passionate actors of many intersecting identities are too often told to be patient, or think of the wider community, or temper the ambition or tone they use to fit the character of the university whose character is precisely the thing they need to see changed.

So ahead of coming together at The Secret Life of Students on Tuesday 15 February in London, we wanted to set the stage by describing what we mean by “doing diversity differently”, and some of the ways in which we think that could work in practice.

In my day

Many in the sector recognise that the model of designing learning environments based on an imagined “normal” student and then applying sticking plaster interventions based on diverse student characteristics is outdated. It isn’t especially clever (and in fact is a bit of a cliche) to say that there is “no such thing as a normal student” – but integrating doing something about it into the systems and rhythms of higher education is a much harder piece of work to accomplish.

We’ve all been there. Provision, services, events and initiatives where the subconscious assumptions are white, young, middle class, full time, academic oriented students. If there’s time, we’ll make adjustments for Joe and his wheelchair, or Mary and her childcare commitments that means she needs to be away by four.

If we’re lucky, we’ve had a briefing that gives us a sense of what Muslim students might need, or what a care leaver might need reassurance over. If we’re luckier than that, we’ve read the reports and seen the stats and know that the needs our students present with are bewilderingly complex, where distance from the old norms intersect to multiply disadvantage.

Many in the sector do their best to muddle through, knowing that their best is almost certainly not good enough – and that the more they make these adaptations, the more they send powerful and problematic signals that the students in receipt of them are somehow not “normal”. Seeing the power of high-intensity local initiatives (almost always dependent on the commitment of a handful of people giving their time as an act of service) and knowing that what’s required is something at “whole institution” level that makes those kinds of experiences universal, but daunted by the scale of the change, and the complexity of intersecting needs and expectations.

A new new new normal

For us, doing diversity differently starts with belonging – a powerful indicator of academic confidence and success. The point about the “normals” is that to one extent or another, they always felt like they belonged on campus – and because they could find lots of others like them, bonding social capital could easily be built.

The interim report of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission reinforced just how important belonging is to today’s students, and we expect the final report – due for launch on Monday 14 February – will open a fresh debate about the contribution we can all make to ensuring that everyone at university feels like they should be there.

Doing diversity differently is also about fostering “bridging” social capital, and the role that higher education can and should play in bringing people together with people unlike them – for a better understanding and appreciation of difference, and the positive educational impact of engaging with a diversity of perspectives.

There are ironies here – generational research suggests that the young are more accepting of diversity and more understanding of discrimination and oppression than older generations – but there’s also evidence that they’re spending much less time with people with those who are not like them as much of their social interaction has moved online, and we’re seeing increasing geographical silos of race, class and age.

In England, the HE sector is animated by discussion over the next phase of OfS’ regulation of higher education, with concern that objectives on outcomes for a more diverse student body are not compatible with objectives for widening access for diverse students. The sector will be looking in the coming months for OfS to reconcile these issues, and to ensure that becoming a friend of outcomes does not accidentally mean becoming an enemy of opportunity.

Difference is normal

Doing diversity differently is partly about starting with the assumption that a seminar room, a year group, a halls block, or a whole student body is going to be spectacularly diverse. The goal ought not to be to do what we did before with some adjustments for the dominant diversity strands, but to identify ways in which the teaching, support and services might be designed to deliver for difference. But reconciling all of those things is difficult when the object of focus is the “thing we’re responsible for” rather than “the lives students lead”. And even then, knowing how to do design that caters for so many different needs can be overwhelming.

It is students that can help us solve so many of those problems – when we give them genuine power and influence they can problem solve in ways that are careful, rapid, and impactful. And despite the way that EDI initiatives – especially those led by those that are impacted – can be pigeonholed as niche or special interest pleading, we know that student and staff-led work that generates change is work that has deep benefits for everyone in a university, precisely because of the way it causes care for others.

There’s more, of course. The students and staff we talk to are impatient because in many cases the research has been done, the lived experiences have been told, and we know the actions work – they just have to be, well, actioned. Moving away from an assumption that university admissions delivers oven-ready, homogeneous students that can cope with the course is important, and can be seen in the growing focus on student transition and extension of induction.

We also know there’s a difficult debate around on whether universities can influence student behaviour (and the downsides of being accused of censorship as a result), the role that technology can play in serving students’ diverse needs, the often ignored issue of the role of failing “basics” in making HE work for everyone, and how data can help us better understand the students we serve. And wellbeing, social mobility and curriculum all feature highly on agendas around the sector.

Anger and care

A backdrop to all of this is culture and, frankly, feelings. The injured pride of whiteness at the idea that the status and privilege of the person feeling it might be more to do with society’s structures and systems than innate talent is often discomforting or denied. And yet without challenge, we know that the self-image of universities as polite, thinking communities can mask deep discrimination and pain. Whether you agree there is a “chilling effect” on free speech, that many who study and work at universities, from all parts of the political spectrum, do not trust that the conversation can be undertaken in a civilised way, is self-evident.

How we talk truth to each other on all of these issues is never far from the surface – and while reminding ourselves and each other to evaluate and challenge what it is that we’re allowed to say in polite committee company is a running theme, so is the question of how constructive disagreement can be sustained and contained within the educational space in ways that enrich for all, rather than adding to the burden those who are marginalised already carry.

We know the tendency is to research the reality of a groups’ lives and suggest that there is a set of interventions or an approach that will work for that group. For some our thinking about diversity may fail on this tenet. We haven’t highlighted Afro-Caribbean students or trans students or mature students to paint a simplistic picture of their needs. Those students may share an experience of particular forms that marginalisation can take in an academic context, but beyond that, they all have different experience, and ideas, and things to contribute.

It’s not to say that that sort of work isn’t immensely important and valuable – we’d encourage everyone, especially those less familiar with the arguments, to dive into that work around the sector to develop their understanding of difference and how, in subtle and not so subtle ways the cultures of universities can create a shared experience of exclusion. But so much of it now tells us what we know already – that if we’d only listened more, and noticed more, and asked better questions, we’d be further on than we are now.

What students really need is for the people at their university with whom they are interacting to be interested in them, to be curious about their lives and motivations, to be prepared to give them influence and power over their experience, and to constantly re-evaluate that which should be universal and that which should be tailored – that which should be the same, and that which should be different.

Join Wonkhe and a host of expert speakers at The Secret Life of Students on Tuesday 15 February in London. Find out more and book your ticket here.

4 responses to “Doing diversity differently means doing away with sticking plasters

  1. I would be interested in hearing what “success” looks like in all of this. With all of the self-bashing that the sector is successfully perpetuating to make itself look virtuous, not to mention all staff who are profiting from EDI initiatives in the name of a greater cause (i.e. making a career out of it), surely it stands to reason that we can never be satisfied with measures because those rely on the continuous self-bashing rhetoric and the persistent seeking out of new victims. Perhaps all staff should read “The Madness of Crowds” and realise that things aren’t quite what they seem.

    1. Perhaps that’s because there wasn’t much of a point in the article Jim… “what students really need is for the people at their university with whom they are interacting to be interested in them” I would argue isn’t massively insightful. Because we don’t already do this… and haven’t for the last god knows how long.

      Then there’s “if we’d only listened more, and noticed more, and asked better questions, we’d be further on than we are now.” This is where my point stands. What does “success” look like. There is still no answer to that question around any EDI matter, because it will never be enough. No matter what HEIs do, there will always be calls do to more, just like you have, without really know what that more is…. so you want HEIs to listen more (your words) and ask better questions (your words) ok…. great.

      One thing that you said is, however, pertinent that is so often an issue: what is said politely, in committees. That is indeed an issue, since nobody wishes to ever say the “wrong” thing. EDI has led us to a point where ironically, people are excluded if they say the wrong thing, just like you just attempted to do in your response to my message. Shooting someone down when they don’t agree whole-heartedly with your own position.

  2. Really like this point “What students really need is for the people at their university with whom they are interacting to be interested in them”.
    But also, we still have some way to go in getting some universities to engage with communities that aren’t engaging with them. That is not to say that we necessarily want more students from those communities, but to say that we need communities to understand the social enterprise role of universities and how it can play a part in wider social inclusion agendas and for universities to communicate on these issues.

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