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Valuing diverse knowledges in higher education: a post-COVID proposition

18 May 2020 | Hilary Noone Hilary Noone argues that people-centred approaches, where everyone’s contribution is welcome, valued and acknowledged, can and should be implemented in the ‘new normal’ and will give institutions the competitive edge in post-COVID sectoral emergence.

The coronavirus crisis has led to a great deal of discussion around how our sector might reimagine some practices and policies when we return to the ‘new normal’. Organisational reflection helps to ensure an agile and forward-thinking institution, generating cutting-edge teaching and research, poised to recruit the best. But how effective is this reflection if the system only hears certain voices? Victoria Holbrook’s recent WONKHE article, ‘Valuing diversity starts with governing boards’, explains the importance and gives practical tips on generating airspace for diverse voices in governance. One major barrier, of special significance in ‘the knowledge industry’, is articulated through Miranda Fricker’s (2007) concept of ‘epistemic injustice’. This is a term that refers to treating people unfairly because of perceptions around the forms of knowledge they hold.

Of course, HE makes its business from selling knowledge validation but its internal workings are commonly at odds with aims to achieve progressive workplace cultures. As increasingly corporate entities, the diversity of knowledge types such as technical, practical, business, experiential and academic, must be valued more equally. Perhaps most prominently – and despite some efforts to dissolve this barrier – there remains a ‘them vs us’ narrative between academics and administrative staff. This involves a privileging of academic credentials over experiential knowledge, often played out in many business areas. The restriction of committee membership to certain levels of seniority, through to the development of policies/processes/initiatives by the ‘usual suspects’ who often have no direct experience of the areas these affect. This ‘testimonial injustice’ (ignoring or dismissing someone’s opinion based on their identity) diminishes the credibility of many highly knowledgeable individuals. This is in addition to the more common credibility deficit experienced by those with protected characteristics, or who aren’t taken seriously because of something as trivial as having a regional accent.

Where consultation does happen, this is often done within a closed system, where valuable insights can become distorted, or worse, appropriated. Outside of formal or corporate channels, there are few opportunities for more junior staff to articulate their experiences openly. This perpetuates what Fricker defines as ‘hermeneutical injustice’, where the tools or language are unavailable for individuals to voice their experiences. It was only following the release of the Wellcome Trust’s Reimagine Research Culture survey findings that labels became available for shared negative experiences such as ‘research gazumping’ (when an idea shared in supervision discussions is taken forward by the supervisor without the involvement of the proposer, often impacting on career development and relationships). Because these terms are not currently widely recognised, the experience continues to be elusive so cannot be pinned down by a policy/code of conduct in governance.

The devaluing of certain types of knowledge, either directly or indirectly, perpetuates the ‘them vs us’ narrative across HE stakeholders. This may include the feeling that things are ‘done to’ a section of the community, rather than ‘done with’ them, creating distrust, resentment and eroding wellbeing. So while unconscious bias and active bystander training can enable people to be more reflective and aware, nothing will be more effective and powerful than giving a voice to those with ‘on the ground knowledge’ to inform policies, governance and best practice. Being invested in the development of policies and having contributions cited increases collective responsibility and contributes to a positive organisational culture.

Epistemic injustice remains a somewhat academic term, but provides a useful conceptual framework for a range of institutional inequalities. People-centred approaches, where everyone’s contribution is welcome, valued and acknowledged, can and should be implemented in the ‘new normal’ and will give institutions the competitive edge in post-COVID sectoral emergence.

Hilary Noone is the Research and Projects Officer (REF Environment and NUCoREs), Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Newcastle University. This blog first appeared on Hilary's LinkedIn page 

Find out more about Advance HE's work to support effective governance and Board diversification,  and our Governor Development Programme (GDP)

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