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Varieties of Diversity Scripts

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are sites of deep contestations over key values of the liberal script. Access to inclusion, resources, and power in the HE system is based on the ideal of meritocratic principles, but academic excellence is often constructed in ways that position democratic values of equality and diversity in opposition or in non-compliance with meritocracy.

While universities have long been a bastion of training (national) elites and knowledge production, the liberalisation and democratisation of Western societies in particular since the 1960s led to the expansion of higher education. This was based on the proposition that an inclusive higher education (HE) is the foundation of an economically prosperous and democratic society. Since then, higher education systems should not only produce knowledge but also contribute to equality and diversity.

"Diversity scripts" reflect debates over what counts and does not count as diversity and how it should be taken into account. Diversity scripts are defined as the ways in which ideals of pluralism, equality, inclusion, and participation are conceptualized in the context of higher education. The project seeks to theorize “varieties of diversity scripts” to explore the different tensions and contestations of equality and meritocracy in HE.

Research Interest

The project seeks to understand the varieties of the meanings of diversity in HE, in particular the commonalities and differences regarding diversity agendas. The overall objective is to theorize the relationship between the promise of equality and the value of meritocracy in relation to diversity. To do so, the project first explores what meanings are given to diversity within the institutional framework of higher education from a comparative perspective. In a second step, it inquiries about the similarities and dissimilarities in the way different Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) address the promise of inclusion in relation to values of meritocracy.

Research Questions

1. Commonalities and differences across higher education systems regarding diversity agendas:

a) Which dimensions of difference have been deemed diversity-(ir)relevant?

b) How are categorical differences and inequalities within social groups along the lines of, for instance, gender, race, class, ability etc. put in relation to one another (intersectionality)?

2. Intersections of equality and meritocracy with the script of diversity in higher education:

c) What are core tenets of meritocracy as envisioned in higher education?

d) How are specific criteria for the “measurement” of merit, in evaluations for hiring, promotion, and the distribution of resources defined and negotiated in relation to diversity and equality of opportunity?

e) To what extent are questions of structural inequalities and distributive justice included orleft out in these negotiations?

Research Approach

A mixed-methods cross-national comparison of India, Turkey, Germany and the UK is applied. First, a computational text analysis of university websites to map the varying notions of diversity as conveyed in universities official websites and documents. The analysed data corpus is enriched by key texts from other actors in higher education. Second, an exploration based on in- depth interviews and focus groups of how university leaders navigate the complex relationship between equality and meritocracy. The empirical part is analytically framed by neo-institutional theories (particularly the Stanford variant) and discursive institutionalism.

Relation to the Liberal Script

Equality and value of meritocracy are key promises and values of the liberal script, and HEIs are an important pillar for the realization of these promises. At the same time, HEIs are sites of deep internal as well as external contestations over these key values of the liberal. Inside of academia, contestations appear in struggles over merit, excellence and epistemic justice. Outside of academia, for example, right-wing populist parties contest gender, sexuality and race studies. Therefore, varieties of diversity scripts in higher education is a highly relevant issue to dissect the challenges, contestations, and power struggles over the liberal script in both liberal and non-liberal societies.