Last year there were fierce debates about the national action plan to give more opportunities to academics who are female or have a migration background or who do not fit the traditional image. A majority of the House called on the Minister to tone down her plan. The VVD was worried about ‘patronising racism’ and other parties also felt that keeping ‘lists’ of the ethnicity and migration background of students and employees goes too far.
Initially, Van Engelshoven was unwilling to yield: “I’m sometimes surprised by the extent to which aspiring to diversity in society conjures up opposition”, she complained during the debate in Parliament. Her tone is now a little more diplomatic, as can be seen from a new letter in which she responds to the critical motions tabled by the House of Representatives.
This might partly be due to the fact that representative councils of universities also criticised plans to show the cultural diversity of employees in a ‘barometer’. All five participating universities subsequently put those plans on hold.
But diplomatically worded or not, her views do not seem to have changed. Registering individual personal features is indeed undesirable, the Minister writes. She says that getting “factual information” about problem areas in academia with regard to equal opportunities, however, is important.
Consequently, she has commissioned the Rathenau Instituut to conduct an initial survey based on existing data, without collecting any new data about employees’ ethnic or migration background. Should that not be sufficiently productive, a new cabinet can always opt to institute “structural monitoring”.
She says she will give further effect to other critical parliamentary motions, but generally only by leaving the decision up to the institutions themselves. On the subject of an adopted SGP motion opposing the appointment of more ‘diversity officers’ she writes: “It is up to the institutions themselves to decide the content of such a position.”
Furthermore, she warns, with effect from next year all public education and research institutions must have a ‘gender equality plan’ if they want to be eligible for European research funding. So they need to have people in their employment, “such as diversity officers”, who can devise and help to implement such a plan.
The CDA does not want the diversity of a research group to be taken into consideration when a funding application is made, but the Minister takes a different view. European research funding organisations are already doing so and Dutch science funding body NWO might decide to do so in the future as well.
In the meantime, the universities are progressing their diversity plans. They can now make use of a ‘guide to gender equality plans’ written by an advisory committee led by Vinod Subramaniam, rector of VU Amsterdam.
One of points made in that guide is that institutions must take gender into account, not just in respect of women but also of non-binary and transgender people. In addition, the educational curriculum needs to be checked, but also such things as the works of art hanging on the walls, the presence of unisex restrooms and the names of buildings.