Since completing my PhD, I have embarked upon a new research project at De Montfort University. The Freedom to Achieve project is a direct response to the attainment gap – the difference between the proportion of white students who are awarded good honours degrees (1st or 2:1), and the proportion of BAME students who are awarded the same degrees. The project utilises the work of Kingston University to look at new ways of understanding the attainment gap and addressing the cultural inclusivity of the learning experience provided for our students.
As a white woman, the project has opened my eyes to the experiences of students and staff of colour, whose sense of belonging on campus may have differed greatly from my own. In an attempt to continue to be reflexive in my approach to research, I have acknowledged my own naïve ignorance of this issue prior to working on the project. My own experience of university life has been one of privilege, where I have easily been able to see myself reflected amongst those who taught me and the content of the curriculum I studied.
I have begun reading a number of works, written by a range of authors, to increase my understanding of these experiences and perspectives. I began with Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: racism and diversity in institutional life. Ahmed’s book offers an account of the diversity world based on interviews with diversity practitioners in higher education, as well as her own experience of doing diversity work.
I found Ahmed’s consideration of how diversity policies allow institutions to conflate the creation of documents with the practice of diversity very interesting. That diversity becomes a box-checking, policy-writing exercise which leaves no room for the actual practice of diversity work. Also, the way that ‘Diversity provides a positive, shiny image of the organization that allows inequalities to be concealed and reproduced.’ (Ahmed 2016, p.72).
De Montfort University is recognised as a highly diverse institution, based within a famously multi-cultural city, and in September of this year was awarded the first University of the Year for Social Inclusion award. Ahmed’s work highlights the risk that this award may be perceived by some as ‘evidence that [we] do not have a problem with racism’ or that we have achieved diversity within our institution. This is by no means an attempt to belittle the effort of those whose work has resulted in award – but rather to highlight the need to continue to challenge inequality and exclusion and to not rest upon our laurels when there is still much to be done.
It is for this reason that the project evaluation work seeks to bring student voice to the fore. By developing accounts of student experience from across all four faculties, and considering what it means to all our students to belong at DMU, we are reminded of who our diversity work is for and where we can continue to develop as a culturally inclusive institution. Ahmed’s book serves as a valuable reminder of the difference between diversity language and diversity practice.