Are universities allowed to record the ethnicity of their students and staff? Should more diversity officers be appointed? MPs recently clashed on these types of questions during a debate on the National Plan of Action for greater diversity and inclusiveness.

There were basically two sides to the debate. One said, don’t focus on diversity and background, because all that matters is quality. The other said some people can’t live up to their potential because they are being put at a disadvantage.

At the end of the day, everyone seeks to achieve the same goal, says political scientist Saskia Bonjour. However, people often disagree on how to get there. “Many studies have shown that at present, people often aren’t assessed on their qualities. So that means that something is still going wrong.”

Mentoring programmes

Bonjour is an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam and also a member of The Young Academy, a group of relatively young academics affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. In association with Professor Marieke van den Brink and student Gwendolyn Taartmans, she mapped out what the Dutch universities’ diversity policies are like in 2020. The conclusion they drew was that there are many opportunities for improvement.

This is because, paradoxically, the universities’ diversity policies fall curiously short on diversity. “At present, the focus is mainly on women,” says Bonjour. “All sorts of measures have been implemented on their behalf over the years, such as targets, fellowships and mentoring programmes.”

Compared to that, there seem to be few policies focusing on other target groups, particularly as regards anti-racism measures. The word ‘racism’ is hardly ever mentioned in most universities’ diversity policies. And there are hardly any usable figures on students and staff members of colour, Bonjour and her colleagues have pointed out.

Necessary step

But is it not perfectly understandable that keeping track of such figures is a rather sensitive issue? Bonjour will be the first to admit that. “And it’s an incredibly complicated discussion into the bargain. So how many people of colour do you want, and how do you define ‘of colour’?”

Nevertheless, she believes that collecting quantitative data is a necessary step. “If we don’t, we’ll never get there. Now some people are saying, ‘you can’t do that, because it’s racist’. And on the other hand, we know that people are being excluded, but we don’t have enough data to show how and where exactly this is happening.”

As far as attracting more female lecturers is concerned, data on promotions and drop-out rates really did make a difference, says Bonjour. “And there are highly meticulous ways to collect figures on ethnicity. For example, the methods used by Statistics Netherlands.”

Gender-neutral toilets

The three academics emphasise that there is more to diversity than just attaining targets – something that is called ‘fixing the numbers’ in academic literature. If universities really wish to become inclusive, they will have to bring about a culture change first. In other words, they will have to ‘fix the institutions’.

For instance, they could do so by using better recruitment and promotion procedures, but they could also establish gender-neutral toilets or prayer rooms. “At the end of the day, it’s about creating room for people who might deviate from the current standard a bit,” says Bonjour. “Because why would you recruit people if they are only going to end up not feeling at home at the university?”

Different perspective

And then there is a third and final step: ‘fixing the knowledge’. In other words, incorporating diversity into degree programmes and research projects. This may involve answering questions such as, are students being encouraged to view things from a different perspective? What kind of knowledge on social categories such as gender, ethnicity and class is being imparted during classes? And how do we make sure that this knowledge is incorporated into research projects?

Bonjour says that this step may be the most important one of the three, but also possibly the trickiest one. “Decisions as to which academics to quote or which texts to discuss are often made as a matter of course, purely because we have always done things that way. Moreover, executives don’t like to tell lecturers what subjects to discuss in their courses. Yet we have to take another look at this, all of us, together. And we could do with a little boost in doing so.”

Lack of time

In short, there is a lot of work to be done. However, no one is quite sure at present who is to do all that work. Of the eighteen diversity officers the researchers spoke to, most lack the time and funding to be really effective.

“For example, they are allocated two to three days a week to look into the entire university’s policy,” says Bonjour. “Or alternatively, they are academics whose superiors tell them to ‘do a little diversity’ on top of their regular duties.”

There is another problem, as well: diversity officers are accountable for the policies they draw up, but are hardly given the opportunity to exert any influence themselves. “If you really wish to make a change at a university, the work must be done by those who are in charge of appointments, promotions and the subject matter discussed in courses,” says Bonjour.

A diversity officer may issue recommendations on those things, but at the end of the day, Bonjour says, it is the executives and supervisors who make the decisions. “And I think that many of them are not sure how to go about this.”