Does diversity training in higher education work?

Education is a pillar of existing cultural change models. To change the way people behave, and how their behaviour impacts upon a culture, there needs to be education:

You need to communicate the desired culture. 

You need to get people to understand what behaviours don’t align with your desired culture. 

You need to show people how to adapt their behaviours. 

You need to encourage people to buy into the change, and see the individual benefit of being part of the change. 

As much as we want people to contribute to a positive environment for the benefit of others, the reality is that priorities vary. It’s entirely reasonable to expect other time commitments, or self-preservation to take priority over investing time into learning about cultural change. 

Over the past few years we’ve noticed a shift in the approach to culture and inclusion within Higher Education. We’ve contributed to debates over the efficacy of training overall, whether welcome week is the right time for delivery, and whether there’s a case for it being mandatory for students. 

Here we discuss the need for training, when to run it, and the conditions under which to run it effectively.

Do university students need inclusion and culture change education?

Inclusion and cultural diversity training seems to be the go-to measure for universities wanting to improve the experience of students on campus, particularly those from minority backgrounds or with varying abilities. 

The point of inclusion and cultural change education is to demonstrate to a group of people how to work better with others that have different backgrounds, characteristics or abilities to themselves. In an ideal world, inclusivity training should help to reduce behaviours that have a negative impact on student safety and wellbeing. The goal is to ensure that the behaviours and decision making of individuals doesn’t impact equal opportunity for all.

Student satisfaction is important for universities, particularly in league tables that don’t rely solely on teaching, and research competencies. Training can therefore be a key tool in ensuring some students are happy with their overall university experience. If they can see that their well being is being prioritised, and that priority is being clearly disseminated throughout the institution.

Beyond perceptions, universities have a duty of care under common law to deliver pastoral support and reasonably protect the health, safety and welfare of its students. If effective inclusion training can reduce the likelihood of toxic and problematic behaviour, then it stands to reason that universities should look to implement it.

This isn’t a hypothetical issue either, the data points quite clearly to issues within Higher Education for racially minoritised students and female students. Harassment levels for students of all backgrounds is too high, and to stop the rise in mental health conditions, non-continuation, and reduced performance, action is needed. 

When is the most effective time to hold inclusion training in higher education 

Although there’s a clear need for action to address challenging behaviour, training is only effective if it exists as part of a cohesive strategy to support change. Behaviour change relies upon awareness through campaigning, generating value aligned policies and processes that mandate behaviours, onboarding people from entry to senior level, and giving people a means to speak up. Training alone can easily become a ‘tick-box’ exercise. Its impact will diminish if it's not supported by a full strategy.

This is why training in welcome week can be a challenging concept. On the one hand, it’s a great time to get a captive audience of students before their attention is focused on their academic commitments. Also, it sets an expectation of what behaviour is acceptable, and what is not very early. 

However if welcome week is the only point of communication, then there will be no impact. Universities should consider what a programme of education looks like for the full academic year, and how welcome week training exists within this, and not as a standalone action. 

How you work with students to achieve this is key, as is the role of student organisations in helping to connect you to students. Students need to be bought into the change, and who they are influenced by to participate can have a big influence on students’ perceptions. As one of our partners told us:

“Involving our Students Union, keeping them at the heart of all the development we’re doing has been absolutely critical in raising awareness of our training”

It’s important to create student interaction that allows them to see that the behaviour change is part of their experience as a student, not just a tick box exercise.

Should diversity and inclusion training in Higher Education be mandatory?

Mandatory training allows you to know that all members of your community have had consistent education on important topics. With this, it is reasonable for you to hold people to a standard of behaviour that aligns to your behavioural policies and your policy on equality, diversity and inclusion.

This can make the process of addressing inappropriate behaviour easier, and help your case management team when these situations do arise.

However mandatory training can decrease genuine interest and engagement. How it is delivered can help to mitigate this risk. An online programme that participants click through to complete can be tedious, and make mandatory training a chore. Interactive, in-person, or short digestible sessions can have a higher impact and make mandatory training more worthwhile.

Whether you choose to make training mandatory will depend on your institution. Some of our partners have told us that they have highly engaged student audiences that ask for these sessions to exist. In such a case, making this training optional is a genuine response to a student call for support. 

If your institution has a disengaged student body, and a high level of prevalence, then there may be a need to make training mandatory. Using data to guide this decision can help you take informed action. By monitoring trends in behaviour you can more effectively gauge the need for training and how to most effectively execute it.

We see a clear role for training in higher education to help improve cultures and reduce toxic behaviour, not only for students, but to also improve the work environment for staff too. However, we believe that HE providers need to see training as more than just ‘duty’, and instead look at how it can be a tool for helping students to grow. Holding training in week one shouldn’t be to tick a box, it should be to begin a journey of learning. 

HE providers need to look at what training is being delivered, how relevant it is to their communities and importantly, how it’s being delivered.

The importance of strategy cannot be understated. By delivering training HE providers are setting standards of expectations for learners to adhere to. If this doesn’t align to expectations for the institution, in how policies will be set out and upheld, then learners are less likely to keep up their obligations. 

Diversity and inclusion training in higher education can work, if universities commit to change, and invest effectively into planning and execution.

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