Diversity drives excellence

two collegues doing research
© Getty Images/FG Trade

Rethinking academic potential in higher education

The event Diversity drives excellence: Rethinking academic potential in higher education was organised by the British Council, Fulbright Germany and the on 2 March 2023 in Berlin. Professionals in higher education and funding organisations joint for a critical conversation on the fruitful yet complex relationship between diversity and excellence in academia with a focus on British, US-American and German perspectives. While it seems to be the consensus that diversity – including fresh ideas and various perspectives – is a perquisite for scientific innovation, this premise at the same time opens up new questions: How do funding organisations and institutions in higher education then approach the interdependence between diversity and excellence? What kind of measures do they implement, for instance, to attract researchers from diverse backgrounds and to work towards a diversity-friendly climate in their organisations? How do they think in this context about equal access, academic potential and excellence? Where do they see the chances, challenges and pitfalls of measuring diversity as well as excellence in higher education? And most importantly, how do early career researchers from diverse backgrounds experience the system?

Critical reflection of personal experiences

In two separate but interconnected panel sessions, those and similar questions were tackled by discussing with both professionals in the field and early career researchers. Panel 1 brought together representatives of higher education and funding organisations from the three hosting countries to share good practice examples from their institutions and their visions on diversity and excellence as two parts of the same equation. In Panel 2, early career researchers encouraged the audience to shift the focus and critically reflected on their experiences as, for instance, first-generation academics in the system. This discussion was able to generate new fruitful input on how academic institutions need to change to become more inclusive, thereby enabling students and researchers with various biographies and different stories to achieve their full academic potential.

In the following, the learnings from the keynote addresses and the panel session are distilled into clusters, focusing on the political framework, the power of funding agencies to act and their options of intervention.

Political framework

Keynote address by Stefan Delfs, :

Global funding and networking organisations such as the Humboldt Foundation contribute to realizing the Federal Foreign Office’s (FFP), notably through innovative schemes like and the which support the brightest and the best from within communities of marginalised and threatened academics. FFP does not merely mean to strengthen the resources, representation, and rights for and of women, but considers marginalized groups more broadly. FFP distinguishes between gender-transformative and gender-sensitive measures with targets set for each type of measures for FFP projects.

Funding agencies' power to act

Keynote address by Frances Wood, UKRI:

The case of (UKRI, the UK’s national funding agency) illustrates concretely how a funding organisation translates policies and political will into practice, recognising that inclusion is strategic work that takes time, can require external consulting, and is based upon published data to monitor progress and to hold yourself and to be held accountable.

UKRI, therefore, works with concrete targets set within the strategy.

Targets are based upon the premise that inclusion needs leadership and change comes from an institution’s top.

Fields of action

The two subsequent panels combine individual experience, potentially inspiring institutional change, with institutional perspectives. Arguing that universities and funding organisations have the capacity and power to participate in changing academic culture, the panellists Prof. Catherina Becker (Humboldt Professor, Group lead Center for Regenerative Therapies, TU Dresden), Prof. Rajani Naidoo (VP Community & Inclusion, University of Bath), Prof. Tunde Adeleke (Prof. of History, Director African and African American Studies Program, Iowa State University, currently Fulbright Professor in Hungary), Julie Larran (PhD candidate, Free University Berlin), Dr. Victoria Sakti (MPI for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen) and Ahngeli Shivam (PhD candidate, University of Mainz) identify four major fields of action clustered below.

1. Programme design

  • The challenge is to carefully analyse and then change the very conditions under which research is produced.
  • Flexibility is key – for research stays and for funding.

2. Recruiting

  • Quotas can be a stepstone but do not necessarily foster a more inclusive climate in academia.
  • A recruiting strategy is needed, including guidelines for selection committees as well as transparent selection criteria.
  • The complexity of people and their individual, multidimensional experiences need to be acknowledged and addressed in the recruiting process.
  • Hidden strengths have to be recognised in the recruiting process and definitions of excellence have to be reassesed.
  • Access is important, but retention might be even more relevant.

3. Excellence

  • The discourse of excellence and the various frameworks of competition linked to it, such as rankings, are in parts counterproductive and go against efforts at diversity and inclusion.
  • Norms of excellence affect specifically women and marginalised groups, being held to a higher standard.
  • Norms of excellence thus operate as exclusive mechanisms, alongside others such as implicit knowledge in the system, gatekeeping of information, a culture of non-belonging (tolerated vs. being welcomed) and language barriers.
  • Higher education needs to be decolonised, as well as systems of knowledge and ideas of excellence.

4. Mentoring

  • Mentorship can be an effective tool in the context of higher education.
  • Mentoring and community service more broadly then needs to be acknowledged and appreciated, e.g., with promotions and in the recruiting process.
  • Professors and supervisors need to be trained to be good mentors.
  • The system needs to rebuild trust with early career researchers.

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