Are Australian universities just paying lip service to the issues of diversity, inclusion, equality, and equity?

Australia institutions have generally come a long way to diversify their student population. But are they doing enough to foster an equal and inclusive environment for everyone to learn and thrive?

Our article is ideal for dominant, advantaged, and privileged students hoping to be part of a diverse community at university. Please do read on as well if you are a minority student searching for the right university and support in Australia.

Diversity and equality

Redefining “Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity”

Universities teach us about human, women’s, and LGBT rights. Unfortunately, that does not mean prejudice and (unconscious) discrimination based on the cultural background, domestic/foreign origin, disability, and gender of students are left outside their walls.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Equality or Equity have an awful acronym: DIE. In the past 10-15 years, these four terms have appeared together so often that many of us mistakenly consider them synonyms and use them interchangeably.

The buzzword in higher education, Diversity, refers to the range of human-to-human differences and dimensions used to differentiate groups and individuals from one another. It includes but is not limited to age, race, ethnicity, national origin, disability, physical attributes, political beliefs, religious and ethical values, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

In a university setting, diversity is all about empowering students and providing a safe, inclusive, positive, and nurturing environment. It recognises an array of diverse individuals, respects and appreciates their differences, and ultimately, realises their full potential in academics and extracurriculars.

The power of diverse perspectives, study and life experiences, cultures, and religions would only be unleashed if institutions value all individuals irrespective of what makes them differ from most peers.

Inclusion aims to welcome and accept all students socially and culturally irrelevant to their identity, cultural and educational backgrounds, ways of living, life values and even personality. Inclusive cultures generate a sense of belonging, make students feel respected and valued for their inherent worth and dignity.

Equality is the state of giving everyone the same rights, opportunities, and resources. No one shall be treated differently or receive less favourable support because of their differences. Therefore, promoting equality is a common and effective strategy to abolish discrimination, victimisation, hate crime, (cyber)bullying, sexual assault, and harassment.

Equality is often confused with Equity, which is the virtue of being just, equitable, and even-handed. Universities are supposed to focus on what and in which quantity the individuals or groups of students need, then take logical and rational decisions to counteract their differences.

In a nutshell, equity is the process of treating students with fairness and impartiality (but with differences) whereas equality is the outcome where universities treat all their students uniformly.

Bully in university

What works for universities?

Typically, institutions can promote DIE and so motivate all students to commit to university life by:

  • Having both short- and long-term missions and plans to treat students fairly
  • Implementing student-centred DIE initiatives across the whole campus
  • Encouraging all staff members to contribute ideas, time, and effort to the establishment and maintenance of a truly tolerant university
  • Making certain that no policies, procedures, and processes discriminate
  • Ensuring that no course contents and learning materials discriminate against any student subpopulations
  • Making sure all assessments and exams are marked fairly, anonymously, and if possible, automatically
  • Equipping students and staff with the resources and skills to challenge hate, prejudice, discrimination, inequality, and exclusion on campus
  • Enabling equal accessibility to information, facilities, and opportunities that aid students’ learning process
  • Providing high-quality disability facilities and support services
  • Encouraging all students to participate in and contribute to seminars, group discussions, debates, field trips, and extracurriculars

Most importantly, while executing the strategies above, universities must never pigeonhole their students to any specific identity. They ought to beware of the reality that a student community is an intersection of various identities, each with unique needs and preferred learning environments. Thus, university staff should acknowledge the differences between groups of students to tailor their support.

Student Activism

diversity - university students

Nowadays, prejudice, (unconscious) discrimination, injustice, inequality, and even hate may still exist in several professor-to-student and peer-to-peer relationships such as these instances of racism, academic sexism, and homophobia. Hence, it is essential for students to take action whilst at university and rise up against unfairness happening to themselves or other students.

If you fight for a good cause, you are effectively acquiring transferrable skills which could give your job seeking journey and future career a massive advantage. Indeed, the abilities to organise, communicate, protest, voice your opinions, and stand up for your beliefs are part of a well-rounded higher education.

Since Australian universities are currently attempting to promote DIE, they will not be the top hindrance to your activism campaigns, but the traditional academic rhythm will. Your biggest opponent tends to be a calendar full of in-course projects, busy exam schedules, built-in midterm breaks, national holidays, summer leaves, and graduation of seasoned student leaders.

If you are not ready for campus activism, advocacy, or legal action, check out The Australian Human Rights Commission. Its mission is to investigate and conciliate your complaints about breaches of human rights as well as discrimination based on age, disability, race/skin colour, ethnic/national origin, biological sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.

Suggestions for prospective students

Are you submitting your university application soon? Don’t forget to research these criteria of the institutions that you are interested:

  • On-going initiatives and programmes designed to embrace, celebrate and support students with the identity which you deem the most crucial
  • An office dedicated to multicultural affairs and DIE issues in learning and teaching experiences
  • Composition of university and faculty leadership, staff, and student body i.e. representation of various identities, cultural and educational backgrounds
  • Diversity of Fellowships for diverse Masters, Ph.D., and Postdocs
  • Recent incidents of racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance on campus plus the strategies used to resolve them and prevent reoccurrences
  • Staff participation in safe space/zone training, physical and mental disability training workshops
  • Integration of DIE issues into classes, extracurriculars, and events hosted by the university or the Students’ Union
  • The variety and recent activity of multicultural societies, clubs, unions, associations or other organisations and extracurriculars that advocate DIE
  • Financial aid, assistance activities, and tutoring programmes for marginalised, disadvantaged, underprivileged, minority or low-income students
  • Accessible accommodations and facilities in all main buildings

Once you have done your online research, visit the campus both on Open Day and during the academic year. To get even a better feel for the university and student community, ask the department of your interest to see whether you can audit or sit in on a class. And, remember to talk to the current students and alumni about the campus climate and student support.

Final verdict

Hopefully, the tips above can help you find a university that is doing the right things to promote DIE and would fit well with your identity, academic objectives, career aspirations, values, and personality.

It is not only the prospective students who prioritise DIE in their future campus life that may benefit from our guide. We also hope that it helps you to prepare ahead if you come from overseas countries, minority races, low-income families, impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds.

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