Lectures delivered by a diverse teaching staff to a diverse student body are becoming the reality in more and more universities throughout the island of Ireland. And classrooms – as well as, ultimately, boardrooms – will be all the better for it.
Although no Irish university has yet been headed by a woman, and the number of women occupying senior positions remains low – half of university lecturers are female, but just 32 per cent are associate professors and only 23 per cent are professors – some progress is being made, with five of the Republic’s seven universities having achieved at least 40 per cent gender balance on executive committees since 2015.
Meanwhile, higher education institutions are moving to address the class gap, which sees huge disparities in college participation based on postcode. For instance, 99 per cent of students in Dublin 6 attend college compared with just 15 per cent in Dublin 17. And the participation of members of the Travelling community in higher education remains tiny, at about 1 per cent.
At the same time, the number of students with disabilities in higher education is rising year on year, although much more work remains to be done.
These different “categories” have always been intersectional: a male student from a disadvantaged background may also have a disability, a female student in a male-dominated subject like engineering may also be from an ethnic minority and on the autism spectrum, placing multiple obstacles and challenges in their path.
At Dublin City University (DCU), Sandra Healy is head of diversity and inclusion at the equality office, where she is focused on increasing diversity and developing inclusion policies for staff.
“We’ve recently introduced a new gender identity policy toolkit, devised with Tanya Ní Mhuirthile of the School of Law and Government, and we have also engaged with the student LGBT society, TENI and BeLonGTo as well. One of the areas we have focused on is the college environment, so we’ve introduced gender-neutral bathrooms in student hubs and we’re looking at how we can best manage student and staff records to be cognisant of sensitivities around gender identity.”
In 2017, DCU was given the Athena Swan bronze award. Athena Swan is an EU initiative, backed by the Higher Education Authority, aimed at increasing the number of women in academia, particularly in senior positions. In its Athena Swan action plan, DCU has made 64 different commitments to inclusivity and fairness.
Promotions is one part of this programme, but DCU has also made progress on family-leave policies. “We are checking our maternity and paternity practices to ensure they’re in line with legislation, we’re looking at the best approaches of other organisations and we have consulted with industry partners too. On top of this, we are looking at policies on carers’ leave. Other practical initiatives including breastfeeding rooms and breaks, and ensuring that this is communicated across departments,” says Healy .
“We recognise that one size does not fit all: one person may want to go on maternity leave while another may prefer to be kept up to date on changes in their department, or allocated some time for onboarding. So it’s important that we take our cue from engaging directly with staff.”
Healy says we also need to look at subjects dominated by one gender such as engineering, where just 18 per cent of students are female, and primary teaching where nearly nine out of 10 students are female. “In engineering, we need to consider how to encourage those 18 per cent to stay in academia, as that’s the only way to solve the pipeline problem. Role models are really important here.”
However, when it comes to academia, role models alone don’t cut it: it’s widely acknowledged to be an increasingly precarious profession, with younger lecturers struggling to get enough hours to stay afloat and more established staff overwhelmed with administrative work – hardly the type of family-friendly policies that universities need to adopt to be more inclusive.
Separately, HEA figures show that 26 per cent of DCU students hail from semi and unskilled socio-economic backgrounds, compared with 17 and 18 per cent for Trinity College and UCD, respectively. Most universities now aim to have at least 25 per cent of their undergraduate student numbers comprising students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with disabilities. A National Access Plan with three distinct funding strands is making a dent, but college access officers have expressed concern that it doesn't go far enough.
Retention of students
Universities have developed policies to encourage retention of students, and access is increasingly being mainstreamed across institutions, rather than siloed off to a single and separate office. Ulster University spent more than £2 million (€2.25 million) in 2017 on widening access and participation bursaries, and its educational outreach includes engaging with more than 90 primary and post-primary schools in its access and outreach programmes.
Elaine Keane, a lecturer in the sociology of education at NUI Galway, has researched the relative experiences of working and middle class students in higher education, and her research shows students from under-represented backgrounds often tend to be more distanced socially and can have lower confidence, even where they have come through access programmes.
“More privileged students, often unconsciously, can group together and exclude them.”
The problems begin but don’t end there. “Class issues continue when people from disadvantaged backgrounds progress into professions, particularly law and business. There can be assumptions among their peers about the nature of poverty. Unless wider structural inequalities in society are meaningfully addressed, then national policies on widening access will have only a peripheral effect.”