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SMU President Prof Lily Kong urged the higher education sector to recognise diversity in its multiplicity at THE Leadership and Management Summit 2020.
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Undergraduate Education

4 approaches to advance diversity in higher education

Published on 2 March 2021

In recent years, diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) have become more than mere buzzwords in business organisations. Instead, effective DEI initiatives have grown to serve as critical drivers for organisational success. In particular, the events of 2020 have propelled DEI issues to the forefront, with impactful social movements and effects of the pandemic resulting in greater proactivity in achieving true diversity and inclusion.

Moreover, this shift reflects how the next generation is set to be the best educated and most diverse population yet. A 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data, for example, found that the US “post-Millennial” generation — or Generation Z — is already the “most racially and ethnically diverse generation”.

It was therefore timely for global purveyors of higher education to address DEI in universities during the Times Higher Education (THE) Leadership and Management Summit on 3 November 2020. SMU President, Professor Lily Kong, was joined by KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s President, Prof Sigbritt Karlsson, the University of Western Australia’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr Amit Chakma, and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Adam Habib at a virtual dialogue focused on leadership strategies to advance diversity and inclusion in universities.

Here are some key takeaways from the session on ways to lead real change through actionable strategies:

1. The complex nature of diversity

According to multi-disciplinary consultancy Global Diversity Practice, diversity is “about empowering people by respecting and appreciating what makes them different, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, and national origin.” Due to the complexity of diversity, acts of “tokenism” by organisations to keep up an appearance of inclusion may not result in any meaningful change.

As such, Prof Kong stressed the need to “recognise diversity in its multiplicity”, including race, nationality, age, socio-economic background and academic qualifications.

“There is a lot that needs to be done to increase gender diversity within the leadership ranks of universities and other kinds of organisations—not just in terms of gender and race,” noted Prof Kong, who was the first Singaporean academic and the first woman to helm a Singaporean university.

A community composed of students from a broad range of nationalities also contributes to a university’s cultural climate. The benefits of interacting with a diverse peer group are exponential as students learn how to develop relationships across varied backgrounds through different mindsets, languages and traditions—a crucial skill in becoming a global citizen of the future.

“Students learn not just from their professors, but their friends and peers in the classroom. If we have a world where cross cultural exchanges are healthy, where there is a greater understanding of different cultures, there is no better way than having young people together, learning together.”

2. Always a work in progress

The notion of fair opportunity also transcends the application process. Real change has to take place by building an organisation in which a diverse community can thrive. Rather than searching for a quick fix, Prof Kong echoed Prof Habib’s statement that “transformation is a never-ending exercise.”

In reality, inclusion is an ongoing process that requires long-term efforts, devoted to active and intentional initiatives. At times, DEI frameworks involve not just university-wide policies and practices, but also a mission from the top-down to envision and design new ways of inclusivity at every level.

Universities like SMU “need to be very deliberate” and “cannot afford to leave it to fate and chance”, added Prof Kong. To date, SMU has been actively spotting and mentoring talents, and providing a wide range of opportunities for career development, both formal and informal. Such talent development efforts go a long way in providing the staff insights into different roles that they might not have otherwise gotten.

3. Need for a level playing field

The tenure clock is a probationary period for early-career faculty that typically lasts seven years. The timeline aims to provide an institution with enough time to decide whether to grant an academic tenure, but not extend it for so long that the faculty member is teaching for an undue period of time without the protections of academic freedom in sight.

During Covid-19, many universities extended the tenure clock by a year for all faculty members as research work was slowed down. However, Prof Kong expressed concern over the policy, as women are trailing behind male peers due to a rise in caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic.

“My biggest worry about Covid-19 is that universities around the world are adopting gender neutral policies, which in effect are gender blind,” said Prof Kong.

“If the extension of the tenure clock by a year is done for both men and women, that to me is being gender blind because we do know and have evidence that women’s publication and submission rates have fallen. Whereas in some areas, evidence suggested that publication rates for men have actually gone up.”

Furthermore, Prof Kong suggested that a simplistic meritocratic system might not be the best tool for encouraging diversity—given an uneven playing field.

“Meritocracy is very much about ability and performance, those are not just natural gifts but are nurtured and developed with opportunity,” explained Prof Kong.

She provided the example of interviewing students for scholarships, whereby students who have performed well often had the opportunity to be exposed to the world because they were able to travel due to an affluent background.

“Based on a pure meritocratic system, it is easy to say that this person has outperformed their peers. When the playing field is not level, the access to opportunities (and) developmental programmes may not be available to everyone in the same way or to the same extent. There’s got to be some consideration for that.”

4. Identifying non-traditional students

An often neglected community when it comes to universities is non-traditional adult learners (NLAs). Universities are often synonymous with youths, but in a milieu whereby lifelong learning and upskilling is essential, NLA form an important component of student diversity.

“In rethinking [the university admissions process], we need to be emancipatory about the age and qualifications on which students are admitted,” noted Prof Kong.

Defined as “aged 25 and over, but also including those under 25 but who have characteristics indicative of adult responsibilities, such as working full-time, being financially dependent, has non spousal dependents, is a single parent, as well as having a non-traditional educational trajectory”, these adult learners often face challenges when looking to advance their education.

As Prof Kong shared, “How can we think about universities as a place of admissions not just for traditional students (18 to 22 year olds), but also for the non-traditional ones – those who have gone off to work first (and) gained a whole bunch of experience, and how do we recognise such prior experiences?”

Beyond academic grades, for example, the SMU admissions team also looks for evidence of qualities such as aptitude, positive attitude, intellectual curiosity, critical thinking and communication skills, as demonstrated through leadership in co-curricular activities; or impactful involvement in community service and volunteer programmes.

See also Reimagining University Admissions to Diversify and Enrich the Student Population and their Learning Experiences.