Do researchers and staff members from a migrant background enjoy the same opportunities as other university employees? There’s a nagging suspicion they don’t. The Dutch Cabinet and the Dutch academic community have launched a national plan of action to promote diversity and inclusion.

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However, they still lack hard data to work with. To map out how many lecturers and staff members come from a migrant background, a share of the universities are taking part in the so-called ‘Cultural Diversity Barometer’.

This is how it works: universities share certain data relating to their staff with Statistics Netherlands (e.g. date of birth, address details, faculty and position). This information is then linked by CBS to its own files on individuals’ origins, and used to generate anonymised data files that are sent back to the university. This clarifies for the universities how many of their staff come from a migration background.

The idea has proven quite controversial in the House of Representatives. Among other parties, the VVD has denounced this ‘inventorying’ of education staff members’ ethnicity and migration background. The conservative liberals have previously submitted a motion with former coalition partners CDA to scrap this plan. This motion was adopted by the House.

Opt-out

Nevertheless, at least five universities have decided to participate in the Barometer. But staff members who object to this have an opt-out – similar to the Dutch new donor registration scheme. They can send an email to their institution stating that they do not wish for their data to be shared with CBS. Otherwise their details are shared with the quango.

And several hundreds of staff members have indeed filed their objection, according to a poll performed by HOP. At Erasmus University Rotterdam, for example, 48 staff members refused to participate. The number is slightly higher at VU University Amsterdam: there, 60 staff members won’t be sharing their information. Seventy staff members in Leiden have withdrawn from the scheme, according to the university’s diversity officer in a recent interview with Mare, while University of Amsterdam has received 159 objections.

Suspended

The debate has become particularly heated in Utrecht. For the moment, this university has by far the highest number of objections: 430 of the 5,461 staff members who were approached refuse to take part. But the University Council has also expressed its concerns about staff members’ privacy. This has resulted in the university suspending its submission of data to CBS, reports NRC.

Still, Utrecht University’s Executive Board sees no reason to withdraw from the project entirely, according to a spokesperson. It will first be providing its University Council with further information. If so required, the Board will once again meet with the Council in late April to discuss the barometer, before sharing any new data with CBS.

Parliamentary questions

Last week, one of Utrecht University’s lecturers shared his concerns about the objection procedure in Elsevier Weekly. Staff members get three weeks at most to opt out, he warned. And what if someone simply overlooks that one email informing staff about the Barometer?

VVD has submitted parliamentary questions regarding the project, tweeted the party’s brand new Education spokesperson Hatte van der Woude. “Students and staff members in the higher education sector shouldn’t be reduced to their origins, particularly if they haven’t given their explicit consent first.” Among other things, Van der Woude would like to know whether this Barometer is actually allowed, since in principle, the House frowns on keeping diversity data.

No new data

And does this project affect privacy in any way? CBS has announced that no new data is collected for this venture, and that the undertaking is in full compliance with privacy legislation. Incidentally, results are only shared in the case of groups of +250 people. This means that data supplied by smaller faculties will be merged before being sent off.

The diversity plan of action was signed by nine different parties, including the science funding agency Dutch Research Council (NWO), the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) and PhD Network Netherlands (PNN).

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