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As societies transform, diversity is becoming a key concern for higher education institutions across Europe, impacting learning and teaching, research and institutional cultures. EUA’s Thomas E. Jørgensen and Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik discuss data on the topic from 159 higher education institutions from 36 European countries, revealing common challenges and opportunities.

European society is increasingly diverse. Rising awareness of this has made inclusiveness a key challenge for society and a strategic question for universities and higher education institutions, affecting teaching, research and institutional cultures.

Although awareness of gender diversity has risen, progress on gender equality, and the representation of women in top positions in both business and universities, remains sluggish. Regarding cultural diversity, the arrival of a large number of refugees in recent years has raised awareness about the challenges and opportunities for refugees in universities. Many have programmes to welcome refugee students and scholars.

The growing economic importance of innovation and technology has increased demand for highly skilled people. At the same time, demographic decline and emigration are putting pressure on economic and social systems in some European countries. These trends are fuelling debates around social diversity and inequality. They are also making access to education and lifelong learning, including higher education, crucial in adjusting to the economy’s digital transformation.

This affects universities and their students. Some systems show a steady increase in student numbers; others suffer from brain drain. Both of these trends are making student populations more diverse, either because more people are entering universities, or because institutions need to reach out and attract new groups of people. At the same time, financial pressures are increasing in the many systems where student numbers are rising faster than funding.

Internationalisation of higher education and research, and the student and staff mobility that goes with it, are also making campuses more diverse. Research has become more cooperative and international and any university wanting to be in the forefront of its fields has to recruit internationally and create a welcoming working environment.

Universities across Europe are also finding new ways to enable people from less-represented backgrounds to find a place in higher education. Rather than seeing diversity as a problem to be solved, many institutions have discovered that diversity breeds excellence. Diverse research and learning environments are demonstrably more creative and produce better results. 

A report from the European University Association, Diversity, equity and inclusion in European higher education institutions, sheds light on these developments. It comes out of the Invited project on strategies towards equity, diversity and inclusion coordinated by the EUA in partnership with the European Continuing Education Network and the European Students Union. It presents a broad picture through data from 159 higher education institutions in 36 countries, collected through a survey and follow-up interviews.

The report shows how universities are expanding their diversity agendas from areas such as gender equality and disabled access to new dimensions such as cultural diversity and sexual orientation. Universities do this because they see it as a core part of their values. It reveals that in several institutions, leaders are working to create a more holistic approach to promoting diversity by connecting its different dimensions.

However, challenges remain, such as a lack of funding and other resources, and the need to further raise awareness and knowledge within the university community. More support is needed, not only to fund the cost of management and activities, but for staff training and sharing good practice. Teaching staff can be taught inclusive learning and teaching methods, for example, while administrative staff can learn how to manage diverse communities, and senior researchers can be trained to run diverse teams.

The use of data to identify issues of under-representation or disadvantage is another important tool, and a challenge for many institutions. Some systems collect data on many characteristics of students and staff, but several countries have legal restrictions doing on monitoring, for example, ethnicity or religion. Rather than labelling people, institutions focus on creating a culture that can embrace and profit from diversity.

One clear lesson is that universities cannot do this alone. Reforms have to be brought forward at the system level, not looking at higher education in isolation, but bringing together different educational levels, policymakers, funders, employers and groups representing the under-represented, disadvantaged or vulnerable.

The task is to develop policies that consider specific national and local challenges. Such an approach would ultimately strengthen the inclusiveness of European higher education systems. 


This article was originally published by Research Europe on 21 November 2019.


Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik

Anna-Lena Claeys-Kulik is Policy Coordinator at EUA. In her position, she contributes to ensuring timely and coherent policy development in areas of interest for EUA and its members and coordinates work on cross-cutting topics such as the European Universities Initiative.

Thomas Jørgensen

Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is Senior Policy Coordinator at the European University Association

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