Each year we join the institutional and policy meetings of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM). At this year’s event, the topics mainly focused on promoting justice through research and practice — but the most poignant session for me was on cultural competency in public policy education.
At first, coming from the Dutch and UN system, I thought our institute would be doing rather well. We’re based in a free and democratic country and our staff and students seem quite diverse. Among our UN staff, almost 60% are women and more than 40% are from developing countries — and all have to do a mandatory online course on gender equality; among our UN PhD fellows, over half are women and nearly two-thirds are from developing countries.
Yet by the time I left the session, I could see how much further we have to go — especially in terms of gender equality in senior management. Although we have a rough gender balance among our PhD fellows, after that we see a steady decline; to the extent that only 15% of our professors are female and only one member of our board, Marianna Mazzucato, is female. She will soon be joined by one more woman, Rianne Letschert, the next Rector of Maastricht University. But is this enough? By definition, diversity among decision makers improves representativeness and has been shown to improve performance. Put simply, female academics need to be heard at every level.
From another angle, academic institutions need to assess how inclusive they are in their everyday operations. We currently host students representing more than 50 nationalities, all with their own cultures and values — yet all our support staff are from developed countries and over 80% are Dutch nationals. Of course, Maastricht is not a capital city, so its pool of high-quality English-speaking candidates will never match that of Brussels, Berlin or Paris. But we could give our staff workshops on the meaning of cultural diversity — and sensitivity! — while also offering our students a brief introduction to Dutch ways of working.
Drilling down further, we should also try to increase the diversity of our degree programmes. Our Master’s in Public Policy and Human Development (MPP) has always attracted students from across the world and consistently tops the rankings, a sign of its outstanding quality. But it’s falling short in terms of top-down diversity: some 97% of our teaching staff originate from developed countries and around a half are Dutch.
Our PhD programmes show a similar picture. With a highly international student population, including at least 50% of fellows coming from developing countries, our teaching staff is still largely from Europe and North America. If we believe there is a value in offering developing country perspectives to our students, there may also be a value in having staff who originate from developing countries to run those classes. To be fair, being located in a small European city, this situation is not really surprising; but again it would be good to train our staff on how to interact with international students.
Finally, we need to ensure that a sufficient number of our publications, at least a critical mass, are written by authors from developing countries. On this front we have mixed results. Over the last couple of years, from 2014-2015, our researchers published eight books, of which five were (co-)authored by women and five were (co-)authored by developing country nationals — i.e. 62.5% each time. In the same period, we released three policy briefs, of which all three were (co-)authored by women but only one was (co-)authored by a developing country national.
Zooming in deeper, also the teaching materials we offer are largely written by people from developed countries. To do a last ‘cultural competency’ check, I reviewed the reading list of a growth empirics class offered to our PhD fellows this year. The core reading consisted of 10 peer-reviewed academic articles, all related to how developing countries can catch up, develop institutions, and how natural resources impacts their development. These articles are written by 23 authors — almost 80% of which are men from developed countries. There was just one author from a developing country: our esteemed female colleague Dr. Maty Konte, who also taught this class.
On all these fronts, there’s scope to improve our work on equality and cultural competency. The question is, how far and how fast do we push strategically toward these goals? And how quickly can we level the playing field while keeping a functional system? At UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance we’re constantly asking these questions, not just of ourselves but also of the broader fields in which we work. For example, in research papers on higher education in South Africa; and in PhD seminars on gender, diversity and political representation.
The important thing is to keep asking the right questions — tough questions — of ourselves and of our peers, and to keep pushing for radical and just solutions. Because this may be the only way, within our lifetimes, to truly level the playing field in higher education.
UNU / Herman Pijpers; PhD defence of Dr. Cheng Boon Ong