Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at UCD during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Introduction

UCD has a strong commitment to mainstreaming policies and actions to advance equality, diversity and inclusion in all its activities. The purpose of this page is to offer an initial assessment of the key EDI challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic to generate engagement with management and the wider University community to take these challenges seriously and to address these within their areas of responsibility. The University has statutory duties to advance equality (under the Higher Education Act 1997) and to advance equality and human rights (under the Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014). All University policies are subject to an Equality Impact Assessment under which the proponent of the policy reviews potential impacts from an EDI perspective. Temporary policy changes should also engage Equality Impact Assessment, recognising the significant risks that Covid-19 creates that inequalities will be accelerated rather than reversed.

Covid-19 and EDI in the Higher Education Sector

At a sectoral level, the Vice Presidents for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group of the Irish Universities Association has produced some guidance on addressing some of the particular challenges which have arisen during the Covid-19 pandemic and collated the various measures reflecting steps being taken in universities nationally. (See Appendix 2 - Covid19 EDI Checklist). The questions in the IUA document need to be addressed by those responsible for the various areas concerned in UCD.  The Higher Education Authority Gender Equality Network also produced a statement on the COVID-19 pandemic and gender equality in Irish higher education (see Appendix 3 - HEA Statement.)

UCD’s Response to the Pandemic

Within UCD, the University is offering regularly updated advice to staff and students through Covid-19 FAQS for staff and students. The Equality, Diversity and Inclusion unit is responding in a variety of ways to advance EDI during this challenging period (See Appendix 1 - EDI Initiatives). UCD Access and Lifelong Learning is supporting students directly and through advice and resources for both students and staff. UCD HR is supporting employees and managers with guidance and FAQs. Collectively, these pillars are working in tandem to ensure a joined up, comprehensive and inclusive approach to supporting students and colleagues during this challenging time.

Student Supports

The work of those supporting students is relational and is based on forging and fostering relationships of trust with students.  Equally students develop support networks with their peers and with staff to sustain and support them through their studies.  The extension of remote teaching and learning has a particular impact on those who are new entrants and who have not developed connections with UCD staff.  The current technologies have served staff well as an alternative to maintaining and continuing contact.  It is important to assess how significant components of learning at a distance will affect incoming cohorts so that their needs can be identified and supported. The University’s strategy Rising to the Future commits to providing an inclusive educational experience in the context of our pioneering University for All initiative. This strategic systemic approach weaves inclusion into the fabric of the institution at all levels, thereby moving access, participation and success from the margins to the mainstream, where it is embedded, integrated, and understood as everyone’s business.

Risks of Advancing Inequalities

An important consideration is that inequalities are likely to be accentuated during a crisis of this kind. Those who experience disadvantage are likely to be less well able to manage the new challenges for a number of reasons:

  • Health problems, including mental health and wellbeing are liable to be accentuated during a period of significant change and stress
  • Economic disadvantage makes it more difficult to adapt to new conditions because of lack of key infrastructure including space to work or study at home, good broadband connection, and essential technology to support teaching and learning.
  • People with disabilities may not have access to essential resources and assistive technology that supports them to fully carry out their roles. For employees, managers need to engage with needs for reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities under the new circumstances. Managers need to acknowledge sensitivities which staff may have around disclosing hidden disabilities which may affect well-being and work. All module coordinators need to ensure they are familiar with the needs for particular accommodations identified for students with disabilities.
  • Those with caring responsibilities are likely to be having to manage increased responsibilities while maintaining commitments to work or study. Whilst colleagues have worked hard to manage these pressures and competing responsibilities, many will face a depletion of energy over time as work is structured around key windows in which caring responsibilities are less demanding.  Whilst many are affected, caring responsibilities tend to fall disproportionately on women. This will impact not only on current capacity but also on longer term career progression, an issue which needs to be addressed in promotional and other structures. These specific concerns have been highlighted in the recently UMT approved University Athena SWAN application and Gender Equality Action Plan 2020 – 2024. More broadly the extended period during which many employees have had to manage family and work responsibilities together during work hours requires consideration as to how the challenges and effects on careers should be managed to ensure that there are no ongoing disadvantage effects.
  • Those in the protected groups under equality legislation already face discrimination which may be accentuated during periods of change or stress. Staff and students from minority ethnic backgrounds may be particularly vulnerable to xenophobic or racist sentiments referencing the pandemic at this time (particularly via social media). Staff and students from LGBT+ backgrounds may face increased homophobia and also challenges of managing changed living circumstances.
  • Some staff and students may face multiple and overlapping challenges, for example managing a disability whilst also having caring responsibilities for children or others.
  • Generally, the stresses of living through a global pandemic are likely to affect those within the protected classes to a greater extent.

Addressing Inequality Challenges During the Pandemic

Addressing inequality challenges during the Covid-19 crisis is complex and challenging. However, it is important to state that the University is committed to addressing inequality to the best of its ability and has identified key actions that can be taken at all levels of the University to reduce impacts.

  • All employees and students are likely to have some change in their needs for support arising from the pandemic. Taking an inclusive approach involves recognising and supporting all to address their changed needs. Those needs are liable to vary, depending on circumstances.
  • A key aspect of addressing needs is effective and regular communication about what is happening and what expectations there are of employees and students. The University has been publishing and updating Covid-19 FAQS for staff and students and a UCD Remote Working Policy during Covid-19 (under review) has been developed to provide guidance for employees on remote working and for managers as to how they can best support employees whilst remote working during the Covid-19 outbreak. The University is undertaking a staff Culture and Engagement Survey and running focus groups to understand better the challenges being faced by all employees of the University so that they be addressed through review and revision of the Remote Working Policy and development and review of other relevant policies.
  • Where ever possible, expectations should be adjusted to recognise the changed circumstances affecting all staff and students. Whilst the University has made a commitment to sustain its activity during the crisis, all in management positions should explicitly address what activities, projects and plans can be cut or delayed until a more suitable time. All involved in teaching, learning and assessment should address how to maintain inclusive and effective learning without placing unnecessary pressures on students. The University is taking steps to recognise the challenges which all our students are facing during the pandemic through changes and advice on teaching and learning, student supports, assessment scheduling, grading and related activities, with regular updates to FAQs to reflect these changes. This engagement with students should continue through various means, such as a survey, to understand their challenges currently and concerns regarding the transition to a potential blended learning approach.
  • The development of range of resources for staff and faculty to address and support inclusive practice helps build confidence and know-how: UCD Access & Lifelong Learning has published the following:

Toolkit for Inclusive Practice in Higher Education: From Vision to Practice, self-assessment tool to progress mainstreaming and inclusion for all It offers an institution-wide lens to assess progress, identify opportunities for improvement, and create a bespoke action plan to develop a whole-institution approach to access and inclusion.

Inclusive Assessment and Feedback: Universal Design Case Studies from IADT and UCD

  • Employees and students may need to talk about the challenges and stresses that they are experiencing. It is important that they are aware of the peer support groups and networks and professional services that are available both within, and external to, UCD for staff and for students

Conclusions and Follow Up

The University has responded at speed to address an urgent public health agenda whilst sustaining as far as possible student education, learning and assessment, research, innovation and impact and wider engagement, including key contributions to addressing and understanding the pandemic and its consequences. Further analysis, research and discussion will be required at a policy and process level to adequately assess interventions and changes that are put in place by individual areas of the university. Leaders and decision-makers must ensure that governance structures adequately account for EDI and that in all areas, UCD utilises and promotes the equality analysis tools and guidance available from the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion teams, and this report, to inform future work.  Some areas for action are within the remit of the UMT EDI Group. Other areas for review and action fall within the responsibility of other key groups such as the UMT Education Group, the Academic Council, the Faculty Promotions Committee and UCD HR. Ongoing responsibilities for giving effect to policies lie with heads of school, heads of unit and other managers.