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Pandemic shines a light on inequalities in higher education

Psychology to play key role in the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda at universities

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a complex impact on every aspect of academic and university life, and it could also provide us an opportunity to push forward the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda, Professor Aneta Tunariu, dean of the School of Psychology told a virtual audience.

Professor Tunariu joined speakers from other UK universities for a panel event hosted by Times Higher Education (THE) entitled THE Live UK: “Where do we go from here?”.

The panel considered “what does 2020 mean for the equalities agenda at universities and diversity in the academy?” Speaking at the event, Professor Tunariu said, “The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated inequalities but also shone a light – it can be used to galvanise our collective action.

“At the University of East London, we continue to strive to embody the aspiration of our founders from over 120 years ago. We use diversity and social justice as our strength – we help communities come together and make a difference.

“In 2019 we established the Office of Institutional Equity which provided the focal point for EDI leadership. We were able to coordinate local as well as corporate initiatives including looking to address the underrepresentation of women and BAME colleagues in leadership roles.”

In rankings released by the Times Higher Education earlier in the year, the University was second in a field of 760 worldwide reducing inequalities – ranking top in the UK. It was also second in the UK in gender equality and quality education, ranking eighth and 57th in the world in these categories.

UEL is also one of the few universities in the UK that has a thriving Black Academy, established a white anti-racist ally group and is working to decolonialise the curriculum.

Ellie Bothwell, Rankings editor at THE, chaired the session. She said, “Inequality in higher education is not a new conversation or phenomenon. But it has made this topic more urgent as it has demonstrated how equality shapes people’s life chances.

“Access to higher education is a key factor to tackle inequality but not all students and staff have the same experiences when they are at university. This has only been exacerbated by Covid.

“If universities are to help societies rebuild after the pandemic, they will need to draw on the full diversity of talent and be as representative as the communities they serve.”

Professor Tunariu believes that psychology can contribute in important ways to ensuring that recent momentum towards supporting the EDI agenda continues. She commented,

“The psychology of the why EDI matters and of the how to align minds and hearts together to accomplish its mission – warrants psychology a place in the dialogue. Recent times have also so acutely lined up the intersection between psychology, humanity, citizen action and political leadership. We each, on a personal level, can contribute to an equitable and effective EDI policy.

 “As well as listening to our student body and senior leadership, what if we also bring forward mindfulness – cultivating the capacity to know and own one’s intention with thoughtfulness and roundness in relation to self and others. That personal commitment to genuinely embed Equality Diversity Inclusion and Social Justice values at every level. That personal investment will help deliver a more profound change and help shield against unequal attendance to different EDI matters or to different communities feeling that they need to compete for attention.