Diversity is, as much as excellence, the strength of our universities. Mathieu Schneider from the University of Strasbourg highlights the need for a new narrative, giving concrete examples of how to make diversity a driver of excellence.
Making diversity a driver of excellence: this is one of the main challenges for university policies today. The struggle for funding, the competition between researchers, between universities at the international level, the worldwide rankings have pushed higher education institutions to promote excellence at all costs. This objective has been clearly expressed in research policies, often supported by the "excellence initiatives" of national governments, and in a more diffused way in learning and teaching policies. In France, the law “Orientation et réussite des étudiants” (2018) has imposed a form of selection for students entering the university. It was followed in 2019 by another law that introduced different tuition fees between students from the EU and those from the rest of the world. The French postulate of a university that welcomes everyone, without distinction, has thus been largely defeated. Nevertheless, the French system still remains quite open, socially and culturally.
The University of Strasbourg has adopted a policy of excellence. In 2016, it was one of the first winners of the Excellence Initiative launched by the French government. Today, it has five active Nobel Prizes, an Institute for Advanced Studies and is a member of the League of European Research Universities (LERU). Nevertheless, it welcomes more than 50,000 students every year, from all levels and social backgrounds, including nearly 10,000 foreign students. The political equation to be resolved is to remain competitive while giving everyone a place, be he or she student or researcher.
The position defended at the University of Strasbourg is that of "inclusive excellence". It consists of gradually extending the scope of research units and curricula of excellence until they reach an ever-increasing part of the community. The recent launch of Interdisciplinary Thematic Institutes (ITI), in which half of the researchers are integrated, is one such example.
But we need to go further and move from “inclusive excellence” to “diverse excellence”, which implies making diversity the foundation of excellence. A research unit that would have only Nobel Prizes would probably be a place of single or normative thinking. It is the plurality of methods, viewpoints and cultures that enables science to innovate and create. It is the same in a school: the cultural and social diversity of teachers makes it possible to offer a richer education, with different points of view on the same subject. It also allows students from different backgrounds to find their way into the approach of their teachers.
In concrete terms, this has led the University of Strasbourg to implement a policy of diversity spread over five areas:
In addition to these areas, an ambitious programme to welcome and integrate refugee students and researchers has been set up, which includes a one-hundred-thousand euro fund for research positions, and an eighty-thousand euro fund for French training courses and integration of students. A department composed of two permanent staff members takes care of the management of students and researchers, in connection with the schools and research units.
The objectives of this diversity policy are first of all to inform, raise awareness and train students and staff on the need to respect others and to create a university community united in diversity. For today, the main challenge is to change the narrative. It is to make researchers understand that diversity is, as much as excellence, the strength of our universities. For at a time when more than half of all age groups have access to higher education, not taking everyone into account runs the risk of further fracturing society.
The University of Strasbourg contributed to the EUA INVITED project survey, which resulted in the report “Diversity, equity and inclusion in European higher education institutions” published in November 2019. Mathieu Schneider was a speaker at the final conference of the project in March 2020.
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