By choosing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) as its optional evaluation area in the FINEEC audit, Aalto University expects to receive recommendations that would be relevant for addressing five key areas. Below are the audit team’s assessments and detailed recommendations concerning the EDI plan and these five areas.
The EDI plan is ambitious, comprehensive and strongly linked to Aalto’s strategy and core values
Aalto’s three-year EDI plan for 2022–2024 has been crafted creatively and collaboratively by the university EDI Committee, chaired by the provost and comprising faculty, staff and students from across the campus. The plan defines how Aalto promotes EDI values and principles in its community and includes recent developments, the status and key priorities over the next three-year period. The EDI plan is ambitious and bold, strongly linked to Aalto’s strategy, prioritising gender equality and inclusion, particularly for international staff and students. Aalto sees EDI as a tool to advance the university’s core values and a competitive edge towards better research, education and impact.
At a governance level, in addition to the university EDI Committee, each school has its own local EDI committee, comprising staff and student members at different career stages (from assistant professor to full professor). However, whilst EDI reps from schools were positive about buy-in from senior staff, some departments have not yet participated in the process. Furthermore, discussions with students revealed an absence of awareness of such EDI committees or plans. Thus, to build EDI awareness and reach a wider audience, the EDI plan needs to be branded, so it is instantly recognisable and evident to those not formally engaged in the process. Notably, the audit interview with staff involved in EDI consisted of only 25% of males. A conscious and systematic approach must be adopted to ensure equitable EDI workload, representation and chairing of EDI committees across schools.
The Aalto EDI Plan outlines five development areas. Each area has several priorities and actions. These are being implemented via university-wide initiatives, organic bottom-up events and trainings. The EDI plan feeds into action plans at the school level. Progress on these actions is monitored via the university’s annual clock (Preview-Review-Dialogue). Regarding implementation and progress, Aalto has already achieved significant gains across its five development areas.
Area 1: Building EDI capabilities
Aalto identifies building EDI capabilities as its key priority area and has implemented numerous initiatives. These include creating and revising policies, forming local committees in each school, and establishing a dedicated EDI web resource with information, policies and EDI tools accessible to the whole Aalto community. Other approaches to building EDI capabilities include staff training, such as unconscious bias, which has been taken by academic and support staff across the university.
To support the university’s goal of promoting psychological safety, Aalto has developed a code of conduct with mandatory training for all staff provided through video content and e-training. Aalto also has dedicated support personnel to whom incidents of harassment, bullying or misconduct can be reported. The audit team interviews with post-graduate students revealed them to be very well informed on the support available to them and how to report difficulties. Similarly, the student union has trained harassment contact persons and provides a range of trainings to students, which they were overwhelmingly positive about.
However, beyond those immediately engaged in EDI, it was evident that, more broadly across the university community, there is a lack of awareness of the EDI plan and participation in EDI trainings. Specifically, students were largely unaware that there is even an EDI plan; the minority who were aware only knew of initiatives to improve gender equality for women.
Ideas on achieving widespread participation in EDI trainings are being discussed by the EDI committees; currently, this is encouraged through internal communication channels, including development managers and human resources. Based on the primary evidence gained during the audit visit, whilst progress has been made, there is a lot more to do in Area 1.
Aalto should invest in branding their EDI plan, making initiatives across the campus immediately attributable to this important pillar. This, together with regular communication and education of EDI philosophies and priorities to staff, particularly students, will help build awareness and competencies. One approach to mainstream/integrate EDI into daily operations is to include it as a standing agenda item at school/department meetings and have it at the start of the agenda so that it is not seen as tokenistic. EDI awareness needs to be extended to aspects beyond gender. For example, students expressed a wish to improve staff awareness and competence in tailoring their teaching and assessment for students with disabilities or additional needs.
Area 2: Fostering an inclusive learning experience
Student diversity is increasing. Learning Support Services and the pedagogical team within this unit provide training to lecturers on inclusive and accessible teaching and assessment. During interviews with staff from support services, the audit team learned that Aalto has a policy that each student has a right to reasonable individual study arrangements due to any impairment restricting their ability to study or any other health condition. Should teaching not allow a student, due to a disability or other health condition, to complete their studies as outlined in the curriculum or the course, the school is obligated to make reasonable accommodations to organise a mode of completing their studies. Such alternative completion modes must allow the student to achieve the intended learning outcomes set for the course or degree.
Student feedback systems enable an analysis of student inclusion. Overall, students at Aalto (including international) were very positive about their sense of inclusion and felt that the staff and lecturers made a great effort. They have neither witnessed nor experienced discrimination or exclusion incidents among their peers. However, some interviewees pointed to a need for Aalto to differentiate more within the large and heterogeneous group international students, in order to better meet individual students’ needs.
The inclusion of international students (undergraduate and doctoral) is supported by language tutoring, guidelines and social activities. Several new initiatives are planned for 2022–2024, emphasising doctoral students, including training for supervisors and establishing a set of standards for supervision. The audit team’s discussions with postgraduate students revealed that this is especially needed for international students.
The audit team recommends that Aalto could further strengthen its inclusive teaching and learning practices by providing resources – such as teaching materials, assessment guides and staff training – to embrace neurodiversity in lectures, learning materials and assessments, with a goal of increasing inclusion. Staff could be incentivised to develop these competencies in inclusive teaching through professional accreditation such as digital badges.
Area 3: Developing equal people processes and practices
Internationalisation and gender have been identified as priority EDI areas to achieve equality. Aalto is Finland’s most international tertiary-level institution; 48% of its staff are international.
Regarding Aalto community members from abroad, several measures are in place to help onboard and welcome international staff. At the university level, these include the annual Finland Independence Day dinner for all staff and their families and a spousal job-seeking assistance programme for new tenure track hires. Many local initiatives have also been developed. For example, the School of Arts, Design and Architecture organises regular dinners and get-to-know-you social events that have proved very popular. Other schools organise an onboarding buddy, excursions and language training and have set up an informal spousal network.
In terms of gender equality, in the ten years since Aalto’s beginning, the percentage of female professors has doubled from 11% to 22%. One initiative to support this goal is the introduction of mentoring for all new assistant professors and all female academic staff. Aalto’s participation in the national project Equal career paths for women is further evidence of their work in this space. In order to ensure success in this area, it will be essential to monitor figures at the local department/school level because significant differences exist between disciplines, which risk being overlooked or missed when data are aggregated at a higher level.
Another initiative by Aalto is embedding EDI philosophies into their recruitment process to broaden diversity in the applicant pool, for example, by using gender-neutral language in job descriptions and utilising dedicated search committees to try to attract more female candidates to predominantly male-dominated disciplines, for instance, chemical engineering. Marketing materials that embrace EDI philosophies to encourage females and males to apply for typically gendered roles are also being developed.
Unconscious bias training is provided for all managers and hiring committees. Detailed tracking of metrics (applicants, shortlisted candidates and those offered positions) needs to be maintained to measure the impact of these measures. However, early indicators are positive; of the last ten assistant professor hires in the School of Science, 50% were female. Gender parity has been achieved in salary and should be monitored going forward across other equality grounds, such as race, particularly as the international community grows.
A staff well-being survey assessed staff attitudes towards working from home and hybrid working models. Different hybrid models are available in Aalto, enabling flexibility for those with caring responsibilities.
Aalto should strive for diversity in all senses at leadership levels and adopt a range of approaches to achieve this. Noteworthy is the audit team’s observation that the percentage of female heads of departments is only 15%. Measures might include targeted, tailored, small-group leadership training for minority groups or the ‛see it to be it’ approach, which promotes the importance of visible role models at senior and leadership levels.
Area 4: Strengthening a data-driven operating model
Aalto uses its annual clock of Preview, Review and Dialogue to understand and monitor the impact of its EDI plan. This includes monitoring staff and student well-being/satisfaction/recruitment/pay through seven complimentary and discrete tools. Staff members described how through this system, data is readily available within 48 hours, with minimal effort. There is a plan to incorporate EDI into the university’s PowerBI dashboard, making them available instantaneously.
The existing biennial employee well-being survey serves as a useful metric to measure the impact of different EDI initiatives. For example, the feeling of inclusion or belonging, particularly felt by non-nationals and their spouses and families, as identified in the last survey, is a vital area for improvement. Aalto has a high completion rate for its staff well-being survey at nearly 60%, and the overall staff well-being results are the highest in Finland.
Whilst student intake is nationally regulated, Aalto should strongly consider innovating a means to measure and monitor the diversity in its student population, encompassing grounds such as gender, race, socio-economic status and disability. This level of awareness of the diversity (or lack of) within its community could illuminate areas where creative solutions could be taken to enhance diversity in its population through creative ways to attract underrepresented groups.
Admission services webpages should make the support available for people with physical or learning difficulties more visible. Such knowledge would strengthen the data-driven operating model, which to some degree, is relatively limited at present. Further evidence of this comes from the two gender only system operated at a national level. There is a lack of awareness of what percentage of the Aalto community does not identify with either of these two genders and, thus, what percentage of the community may feel excluded. Some interviewed students expressed frustration with the inability of Aalto to record other measures of diversity adequately and found the gender-binary recording system antiquated. Although Finnish national legislation does not yet consider gender beyond being binary, careful consideration should be given to how Aalto can overcome this hurdle and be more inclusive to the university community by delivering a creative solution to capture and monitor a broader spectrum of genders.
The audit team recommends that Aalto reconsider its decision to exclude targets from its EDI plan. The EDI leads/champions should carefully consider how they can objectively capture progress and impact in the EDI areas without targets. Some staff voiced their enthusiasm for setting quantitative targets within schools, especially where stark differences in gender balance, for example, exist. Milestones should be included at the very least and would incentivise and provide a sense of achievement to be celebrated by the university community.
Area 5: Promoting accessibility and barrier-free environments
Aalto is monitoring staff satisfaction in this regard through its well-being at work surveys and has identified areas to prioritise and improve. For current students, the Learning Services’ collaborative accessibility group shares best practices for arranging suitable actions and developmental issues. Campus development is controlled by Finnish legislation. However, staff felt that much effort has gone into increasing campus accessibility.
Through discussions with international students, language emerged as a barrier to their sense of belonging to the Aalto community. This is primarily felt outside the classroom, which students feel is also part of their learning experience. They expressed a desire for the university to be more proactive in this regard.
As regards to promoting accessibility of studies, the audit team recommends that Aalto consider what alternative measures or flexible entry and learning pathways they could introduce to strive for equity amongst a diverse entrance student population. For example, students from socio-economically disadvantaged homes, minority groups, migrant families, and students with learning difficulties or physical or mental disabilities have a much higher barrier to entering tertiary level education. While some alternative admission routes exist, such as open university and vocational degree pathways, no formal processes are in place to train, educate and equip faculty with how to assess these cases. Initiatives may include improving web-based admissions information, physical and online support for these students and targeting outreach events and programmes to them in the community.