In our increasingly globalised world, millions of students every year are travelling to different countries to study at the university level. But how are these institutions helping foster a sense of community and belonging for students coming together on campus from sometimes such vastly divergent backgrounds?
Co-Host of The Interview Charles Sin sat down with Omolabake Fakunle, Director of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at the Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh (UOE) to discuss how her academic research into this very topic has helped shape the policies she enacts in her role.
To begin with, I believe everybody’s input is needed in EDI regardless of the role they’re performing. We’re all diverse, and inclusivity should matter to everybody. Specifically, I was very interested in this role because it relates to my research, which focuses on inclusivity in internationalisation. This provides a premise for diversity — of people, knowledge, and thought. Thinking about international education and to what extent diversity is tending towards inclusivity has always been a part of my work.
Over a decade ago, I had a career in accounting. One of the reasons I decided to move to education was driven by my interest in the student experience. This was because of my own experience as an adult returning as a mature student, a parent, an international student, and also as a woman. So you can imagine that getting back into education wasn’t easy! It was a question of wanting to make a difference and contribute. And I felt the best place I could do that was in education. And coming from a business background helps me use that in my leadership role. Everything’s come together to give me a multidisciplinary/multidimensional outlook and bring that to my work.
We believe in looking at the welfare and well-being of not only our students but our staff as well. These things are interrelated because they all share the same space. At UOE, we have policies and guidelines, but at the same time, we wanted to know how our students and staff interpret them in practice. So we developed a seminar that I led online three years ago during Covid. And so, we brought together a student/staff panel to have a conversation. One of the student panellists talked about being a parent. She talked about how difficult it is to have parental obligations on top of academic responsibilities. This is an example of how the student voice and feedback are crucial to informing our plans and actions.
As a researcher, data is key to me. Anecdotal accounts are very important as well, but we need hard information. How do we get it? As EDI Director, I’ve been working to create a visibility system for our EDI committee and representatives. Over the next couple of months, we’ll be showcasing to students who their EDI reps are, so they can have discussions, and they can collect this data to understand the kind of issues coming up in our community. Establishing that two-way communication channel and making it visible so people know that EDI is very present on campus is one of my key priorities.
I’m in a very fortunate position in that my research, teaching, and citizenship are all connected by this focus on inclusion. When I talk about internationalisation and inclusivity, the most visible aspect is the mobility of students. We currently have over 6,000,000 students travelling from their country to study in a different one. My research looks into the extent to which higher education policies consider the student voice for policy development. For example, one aspect of my work looks at employability. As one would expect, there is a lot of research and policy on supporting national students to get a job post-graduation, but there’s very little focus on international students. How do we address this disconnect between internationalisation and employability? Also, to what extent do we value the diversity of knowledge that international students bring us from their countries to enhance the curriculum?
As one would expect, there is a lot of research and policy on supporting national students to get a job post-graduation, but there’s very little focus on international students. How do we address this disconnect between internationalisation and employability?
I actually developed a Masters level course called Higher Education in the Global Context. Over a period of ten weeks, I take my students through a journey on what international education in a globalised world means. We look at different country contexts, the extent to which they are connected, and topical and conceptual discourses on internationalisation in a global world.
I think it’s very important to maintain the connection with students because we want our students to feel that sense of welcome, belonging, and inclusion regardless of their personal and intersectional characteristics. Working with students gives me the opportunity to listen to them and ask questions. But outside of teaching students, I maintain an open-door policy in the sense that students are welcome to email and give me suggestions. One key thing we do is to ensure the representation of students on all our EDI subgroups and committees.
I think listening and being empathetic. Kindness is so important, and it’s underrated. Understand that EDI is a work in progress. Before we get to that promised land, ask yourself, “Are we listening to the other person? Are we understanding their circumstances?” EDI matters are sensitive so you need to communicate that you care. For students to engage, they have to trust the system: how do they come to trust it? By creating channels of communication that clearly signpost that they can talk to you, that you’re listening to them, and that you’re actually taking action as a result of the engagement and feedback received.