The importance for the workplace of diversity in universities

The importance of diversity in universities has been in the news recently as the action group Students for Fair Admissions has brought a lawsuit against Harvard University on the grounds of discriminating against Asian Americans. In the UK, after Cambridge University was criticised for its failure to admit anywhere near enough pupils from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background, the rapper Stormzy made headlines by launching a scholarship to fund two black students this year and two in 2019 to attend Cambridge.

Although great steps have been taken to make student bodies more diverse, there is clearly a long way to go. Why is diversity at university so important for the future of the workplace and what needs to be done?

  • As the population becomes more diverse, so does the workforce. In order to produce the industry leaders and managers of tomorrow, higher education institutions need to reflect this diversity more accurately. If the student body of a top university is not diverse, the high-profile companies that recruit from these revered institutions will struggle to secure the right mix of graduates to reflect whatever diversity policy they have in place. Still, there is a predominance of white males in senior positions and on boards in both Britain and North America. If a more diverse generation of board directors is going to come up through the ranks, this needs to begin at university admission level.
  • Increasing diversity at top universities is more than meeting quotas and announcing a policy of inclusivity. According to Labour MP David Lammy, who earlier this year called for every university in Britain to publish its admissions data in the interests of transparency, cultural change in the community is important, too. The admission process for top universities needs to be demystified. He told the BBC: “If you’re on the 20th floor of a tower block estate and you’re getting straight A’s, you apply, go for a difficult interview… You don’t get in, then none of the other kids apply the following year.”
  • A mix of students from different backgrounds creates a diversity of thinking and different approaches to problem solving. Anybody entering the workplace nowadays is likely to find themselves working on a cross-cultural team. When all these different ways of collaborating have become second nature, thanks to the diverse environment at university, a graduate will be in a position enjoy a head start in business.
  • Students who spend their higher education years in a diverse environment will be better communicators. Being able to communicate across cultures is not just about being effective in your own workplace; in today’s business environment, clients and suppliers will also reflect a diverse world. Understanding the needs and thought processes of clients, whether they are from China, India, the Middle East or South America, is an important asset.
  • University is known to be a place where controversial topics are debated in a ‘safe’ space. With a diverse student population, this can be a vital grounding in informed discussion, developing listening skills and understanding conflict resolution across cultures – all useful skills to take to the workplace.
  • Studies consistently reveal that diversity drives innovation and creativity. This goes way beyond the academic aspect of student life; a university environment with a diverse range of clubs, societies and cultural events is far more culturally enriching than an establishment in which the majority of students are white and middle class. Lasting exposure to the music, philosophy, literature and drama of different cultures creates open-minded, rounded individuals who can be an asset to a multicultural workplace.
  • Diversity in universities isn’t just about the student population. Universities today are powerful global businesses and as such, the faculty also needs to reflect the diversity of industry. The number of male vice-chancellors, for example, is disproportionately high. Furthermore, universities that operate on a box-ticking system, simply stating that a certain percentage of their employees are from ethnic minority backgrounds, could be factoring in administrative staff and even cleaners, not senior academics and researchers. More transparency is essential.

Click here to read our advice on how universities can support international students. 


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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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