We simply had to put the diversity survey to a halt
Diversity is an important topic in the higher education sector. It's also a pretty broad topic. Diversity policies cover several different groups: women, international students, the LGBTQI+ community, first-generation students, people with a migration background, and people with disabilities — to name but a few. The overarching theme here is: how do you make sure that everyone feels at home? How do you make sure everyone gets the same opportunities?
Diversity is also an important topic in the classroom and the target of societal debate. Is our education too Western? Are teachers more inclined to adhere to certain ideologies? Are people really free to speak their minds or are they excluded if their opinions don't fit a left-wing or right-wing mentality?
If one follows the Dutch media, the debates in the Dutch Parliament and social media, one would be inclined to think that universities are left-wing churches led by people trying to impose their ideology. This would put universities in direct opposition to rising right-wing populism, the reduction of the number of refugees, and the football stars who refuse to wear an armband in support of the LGBTQI+ community.
But are universities really that left-wing? What are the hot topics within these institutions? What do students and staff members really think about this subject? Do they see themselves represented in the diversity policies adopted or do they think higher education has gone too far in this regard? Is it true that the culture within the universities and universities of applied sciences is different than outside their confines?
These are the questions that oriented the project for which all independent news media about universities and universities of applied sciences submitted an application to the Fund to Stimulate Journalism (in Dutch, Stimulerinsfonds voor de Journalistiek). Our goal was to see to what extent different higher education institutions hold the same opinions with regard to diversity. Are there any similarities or differences worthy of note? Are the diversity policies implemented by universities different from the ones implemented by universities of applied sciences? Do students outside the biggest cities think differently compared to those studying in the biggest urban centres? These are all interesting questions.
In addition to our own research into the policies of the participating institutions, we also wanted to know the opinions of students and employees. That's why we were working together with the research agency Newcom. However, we soon had to take the survey offline.
How was that even possible?
What drove this decision was a publication by the Dutch blog GeenStijl which dismissed the survey as a "non-binary fuckpoll", assuming that the main goal of the project was to praise a certain view on diversity. That isn't accurate at all. We were just curious. Unfortunately, we will not get the answers to our questions because GeenStijl called on its readers to spoil the research by filling in the questionnaire themselves. Because of this intrusion, Newcom had no choice but to close the survey altogether.
But how was it even possible for people outside the institutions to answer the questionnaire? Weren't there any barriers? The Groningen-based statistician Casper Albers writes that this case only confirms that open research doesn't work — and he's right. At least not with a topic like this and not on such a scale.
Couldn't we have established some kind of barrier that would only allow students and employees of the nineteen institutions in? Yes, we could and we would have liked to do that. But that would require the help of the institutions themselves — and a significant number of them were not willing to help out with that.
No other way
Since we couldn't think of any other way to establish a buffer, we decided to go with plan B, which was having a completely open questionnaire. We were hoping there would be no sabotage, considering the relatively small scale of each questionnaire (each institution had its own version of it). Well, as it turns out, we were naïve. Especially when it's about this topic. And in such polarised times.
We think it's a shame that the survey had to be put to a halt, especially because it would have provided DUB and other higher education media outlets with a wealth of information to which the diversity policies of the institutions could be compared.
We're going to do our best to produce articles on diversity based on our research into the policies of each institution and the data we managed to collect before GeenStijl's post. Each outlet is going to do that in its own manner. This way, we can still do justice to the stories shared by students and employees, even though they might not be statistically representative.