Reimagining University Admissions to Diversify and Enrich the Student Population and their Learning Experiences

SMU President urges the higher education sector to recognise diversity in its multiplicity at THE Leadership and Management Summit

A diverse mix of students would engender opportunities for cross-cultural interactions and inject a broader range of perspectives into classroom discussions, enriching the learning experience. To enable this, the age-old conventions of university admissions are worth a rethink.

“In rethinking [the university admissions process], we need to be emancipatory about the age and qualifications on which students are admitted,” said SMU President, Prof Lily Kong, at the Times Higher Education (THE) Leadership and Management Summit on 3 November 2020. She was speaking at a virtual dialogue focused on leadership strategies to advance diversity and inclusion in universities. The one-day online event attracted some 2,000 participants from the higher education sector around the world.

“How can we think about universities as a place of admissions not just for traditional students, but also for the non-traditional ones – those who have gone off to work first (and) gained a whole bunch of experience, and how do we recognise such prior experiences?” she asked.

Prof Kong made these comments at a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion. Her fellow panellists included KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s President, Prof Sigbritt Karlsson, the University of Western Australia’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr Amit Chakma, and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Adam Habib.

Observing that the discourse on diversity and inclusion tended to focus on gender, Prof Kong stressed the need to “recognise diversity in its multiplicity”, such as race, nationality, age, socio-economic background and academic qualifications.

Prof Habib, called for the audience to seek “a nuanced conversation”, rather than to cast the debate on diversity in universities as a dichotomy of either “transformed” or “untransformed”. Even though the University of the Witwatersrand had dramatically transformed the race composition of its students and academics over the last two decades, Prof Habib was of the view that it remained a work in progress as “transformation is a never-ending exercise.”

On the topic of advancing diversity in university leadership positions, Prof Kong emphasised the “need to be very deliberate” as universities “cannot afford to leave it to fate and chance”. Strategies adopted by SMU included spotting and mentoring talents, as well as offering them myriad opportunities for career development, both formal and informal. Even though success was not guaranteed, Prof Kong believed that it was a worthwhile process as talent development efforts provided the staff with insights into different roles that they might not have otherwise gotten.

Concurring with Prof Kong, Prof Habib opined that universities “must create enough of a fat pipeline so if you have leakage, that’s good for the system and we shouldn’t worry about it”.

Dr Chakma shared how he would “insist on having a long list” and ask for talent selection pools to be expanded until they were sufficiently diverse.

Prof Karlsson felt that “diversity improves the quality of the university” because of the different perspectives to issues that it brought along.

During the hour-long discussion, the four university leaders also exchanged views on how meritocracy could interplay with diversity. Citing his own career progression as a person of colour, Dr Chakma said, “If you are truly meritocratic, I am 100 percent convinced that diversity will follow”.

However, Prof Habib felt that “the debate of meritocracy has to be understood in the context of inequality”.

“When the playing field is not level, the access to opportunities (and) developmental programmes may not be available to everyone in the same way or to the same extent”, Prof Kong pointed out. “There’s got to be some consideration for that.”