Diversity in Tertiary Science Education

Is science truly a meritocracy? A system in which the best ideas and thinkers rise to the top, like Brainiac sea-foam? Or do people from underrepresented minority groups – such as disabled females – face substantial systemic barriers that make their journey a bit like playing Fortnite in Battle Royale mode?

Research over the last decade tells us that diversity improves science. Most Australian universities have a defined list of policies, priorities and actions available to all staff and students that promote diversity. Indeed, many even develop initiatives that specifically target, recruit and enrol these students. On paper, it seems that diversity is encouraged, lauded and well-supported by both government and institutional policy and infrastructure. However, how well do these initiatives translate into the student experience?

A 2017 survey of underrepresented minority (URM) students say: not well. Appearances can be deceiving when it comes to gauging actual student experience – a bit like opening a $200 bottle of Bollinger only to discover that the wine is corked. Well, our initiatives are corked. So where is the disconnect? Why do diversity initiatives fail to reach the students they were designed to recruit and assist? For starters, the disconnect is not often academic in nature. The less tangible elements of the student experience –those not documented in university Subject Experience Surveys for example –are the ones that predominantly hinder women and other minorities in their academic journeys.

So, let’s look at diversity. The term merely describes differences within a group. Inclusion, in comparison, is about how these members are treated and how they feel. Emphasizing diversity without institutional, cultural inclusion merely increases the number of diverse scientists. It does not foster equity within the scientific or academic community.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is definitive in its assessment that ‘there are not enough services available to students with a disability to match the requirements’. Despite this, according to Universities Australia, there has been as 94% increase in enrolments by students with a disability over the last decade. As you would expect, there are reams of policy documents addressing both initiatives and codes of practice for universities. The Disability Discrimination Act of 1992 says that active measures must be taken to identify and remove barriers to learning that are reasonable and that do not impose unjustifiable hardship on the organisation. The Students with Disabilities Code of Practise for Australian Tertiary Institutions insists that (under section B1-6) ‘they (disabled students) will be treated with dignity and respect’, and further (under section H2e) that staff are ‘able to respond appropriately to the requirements of students with disabilities and call on timely specialist advice as required’.

Here’s how it translates into reality. A young woman with congenital distal spinal muscular atrophy is studying her undergraduate science degree at one of Australia’s most well-known regional universities. Due to her condition, she is reliant on her wheelchair, and hence she chooses to complete most of the program via distance education. However, Australian Qualifications Framework requirements mean that she must fulfil specific requirements for laboratory hours and face-to-face teaching hours via compulsory residential school sessions. Again, in line with the research, she does not face academic challenges – she is a multiple-time recipient of the Dean’s List academic recognition.

Her challenges are instead practical. The ageing laboratory facilities were not designed for wheelchair accessibility. This leaves her stuck out the front, unable to participate in experiments. Despite booking her accommodation at 9.01am on the day reservations become available, she arrives to discover that the one suitable accessible room out of all the university residences has been allocated to someone else…an ambulatory someone else at that. She is now in a room that doesn’t fit her wheelchair hoist, and in which she cannot shower for the four days that she is required to attend classes. She has little option for recourse. Residential schools often run over weekends, and as a result, there is no one around to fulfil the (H2e) codes of practice. In these circumstances, she is expected to both fully participate in class activities and complete a stressful mid-session examination without the basic human dignity of being able to shower or toilet safely.

Now, this university talks the talk. They value equity diversity. They are about ‘creating a fair and inclusive environment in which students and staff from all backgrounds can flourish’. They have contacted the student in question and have determined to rectify their residential accessibility allocation policy…at some point. But, ask the student how ‘flourishy’ she feels right now. Go on. What are the chances that she’ll be inclined to subject herself to more of the same at a postgraduate level? How can she be expected to ‘bloom’ when her environment is not nurtured? The absence of practical inclusion strategies – for example, having access to more than one appropriately equipped residential room – means that in this case, some of the best ideas, the best thinkers, have very little chance of competing or rising to the top in this supposed ‘meritocracy’ of science. She is playing the same game as her cohort, but in Battle Royale mode. Until diversity initiatives come hand-in-hand with institutional practical inclusion strategies, ‘valuing diversity’ is nothing more than politically correct point-scoring.