Equal treatment is the responsibility of the whole community

Anni Sams is eagerly looking forward to how the University will implement the obligations related to implementing equality evaluation in recruitments that entered into force in June.

Anni Sams, at the beginning of 2023, you started as a project planning officer for the Faculty of Social Sciences on equality and non-discrimination issues. You also hold a similar position at the Faculty of Educational Sciences. What is your expertise needed for, and what is involved in your work? 

I started my career in higher education administration in 2020, when I came to the Faculty of Educational Sciences at the University of Helsinki to engage in equality and non-discrimination planning. Since the beginning of 2023, I have been occupied with these same duties at the Faculty of Social Sciences, where I also used to study. My work is based on equality and non-discrimination legislation, according to which higher education institutions, as providers of education, have an obligation to promote equality and non-discrimination in all their activities. 

The University's administration is responsible for the development of equality and non-discrimination at the University level and for fulfilling the legal planning obligations with regard to the provision of education. My position is located at the faculty level and is closer to everyday work and studies than the equality and non-discrimination efforts of University-level administration. At the Faculty of Educational Sciences, I have planned and implemented training events for staff with the Faculty's equality and diversity group, and my aim is to continue these activities at the Faculty of Social Sciences and possibly also in the form of inter-faculty collaboration. I am also involved in developing material promoting equality and non-discrimination, such as a pocket guide on equality and diversity for students of education. 

Faculty staff and students can contact me if they have any questions related to my duties. Together we can consider how the issues could be tackled. The University has clear structures and operating models for tackling harassment, and if necessary, I can provide advice for contacting other relevant parties as well, such as the Office of the Ombudsman for Equality or the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman.

It is often important to a person who has experienced discrimination to be heard, even if actual measures are not taken in their individual case. In these cases, with the consent of the person concerned, I can relay the matter anonymously to the faculty management, for example, so that they can take it into account in their work. I can highlight development needs in University administration and bring them anonymously to the attention of those responsible so that individuals who have personally noticed or experienced discriminating practices do not have to take responsibility for the flow of information. 

Even though part of my job is to provide advice and support, I have no authority or role in resolving issues. In my work, I focus specifically on issues covered by equality and non-discrimination legislation. 

The hot topic of the past summer has been racism both in the structures and practices of our society as well as in our mutual interaction. How do you see Finnish society in general in this regard and the field of higher education in particular? 

Discrimination and racism are part of Finnish society, and there has been discussion about them for decades. According to a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Finland is one of the most racist member states of the EU, and a report by the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman shows that many experience racism in the Finnish education system from early childhood education to higher education. For many Finns, racism and the fear of discrimination are part of everyday life, and for them, unfortunately, the theme is always topical. 

The social debate is conducted from different positions of power. It is important that even those whose everyday choices and opportunities are not affected by racism and discrimination are aware of these phenomena. In their statement, the most central authority in matters related to discrimination, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, expressed concern that racism and hate speech are threatening to become normalised in politics, which has increased distress and fear of discrimination in everyday life among those who encounter it. This raises concerns and will certainly affect our staff and students as well. 

The higher education sector is part of Finnish society, and its phenomena are visible in the University's work and study environments as well as in the lives of students and staff outside the University. A report published last year by the KOTAMO project of the Ministry of Education and Culture on equality and non-discrimination in the Finnish higher education sector states that respondents belonging to an ethnic minority (the term used in the project) feel that their opportunities for career advancement are clearly inferior to ethnic Finns (the term used in the project) and that they also face discrimination. On the other hand, the report states that relatively little research has been conducted on equality and racism in Finnish higher education institutions. In June 2023, the Ministry of Justice published a preliminary report (in Finnish only) on structural discrimination, which recommends, among other things, the development of a model for monitoring structural discrimination in professional life and education. Perhaps we as a university will also have such a tool for promoting equality at our disposal in the future. 

For example, the student organisation Students of Colour (SOCO) has highlighted aspects of structural discrimination and racism at the University, and the students of the Faculty of Educational Sciences carried out a student survey in 2019 gathering students' experiences on the realisation of equality and non-discrimination in studies. In my work I have encountered several students and staff members who have experienced racism and discrimination at work or in their studies. However, systematic data collection and research are needed to ensure that bringing these problems to light is not left as the responsibility of those members of the University community who are disadvantaged due to discrimination. 

In my opinion, the responsibility of the education provider to promote equality means that the University intervenes in problems that arise in research, studies and the everyday life of the University and invests in strengthening the equality and non-discrimination perspective in all its activities. It is important that we also shed a critical light on our own practices and structures. Do they support the realisation of equality, or do discriminatory structures remain hidden when they are not identified? 

At the beginning of September, the Parliament discussed the Government statement on promoting equality, gender equality and non-discrimination in Finnish society. As one of the measures, the Government will launch a gender equality and non-discrimination development programme covering the entire education system for the years 2024–2025. According to the statement: “The programme will support educational institutions in the practical implementation of their current equality and gender equality plans in the day-to-day activities of early childhood education and care and educational institutions.” What do you think of this measure, and how does it fit into the practices of higher education institutions and universities? 

The University of Helsinki has a valid statutory equality and diversity plan and well-functioning structures for the implementation of the plan. However, equality and non-discrimination planning is still relatively in its infancy in Finland, and it would be great if support could also be provided for the development of university administration in this regard. The Ministry of Education and Culture report on the promotion of gender equality and non-discrimination in higher education institutions (in Finnish only), published in 2020, encourages higher education institutions to identify challenges to practical equality in terms of all the grounds for discrimination referred to in legislation. In particular, the University of Helsinki was encouraged to record more ambitious measures to address the challenges, and this advice has also been heeded.

I am currently involved in the implementation of the first action plan of the Faculty of Educational Sciences to promote equality and diversity. The primary goal of the process is to identify development needs at the Faculty level, but an action plan could be an effective way, where applicable, to implement the University-level plan at the faculties. However, financial resources are needed to set up such structures for the promotion of equality and diversity. 

Even though the promotion of diversity and equality is already part of the statutory duties of all members of university communities, there is not always time in our busy university life to review activities, practices and structures from a diversity perspective. Support and resources for such development efforts would certainly be very welcome. At the same time, it is important that the university sector's opportunities to conduct in-depth research in social issues related to equality, diversity and discrimination are ensured so that we have sufficient knowledge and understanding to support development efforts in the future. 

In recent years, the Faculty of Social Sciences has sought to take a collectively proactive role in diversity, equality and non-discrimination issues. Among other things, we have drawn up ethical guidelines by crowdsourcing and, together with students, launched a diversity afternoon celebrated once a semester. For your part, you have considered different training options for our staff, so as to integrate diversity as one of the key values in all our operations. How is the Faculty of Social Sciences doing in this regard, and what would consider important steps to implement diversity even better than it is today? 

At this point, I'm just getting to know the Faculty from the point of view of University administration. Working at two faculties, I have noticed that faculty structures are surprisingly different, and practices cannot be directly duplicated into different operating environments. It is great that the Faculty is active in equality issues and develops practices that normalise equality and non-discrimination perspectives. Shared processes such as the ethical guidelines of the Faculty of Social Sciences prompt general discussion on how we can all take responsibility for interaction. Equal treatment is everyone's responsibility. 

In both the Faculty of Educational Sciences and the Faculty of Social Sciences, students have taken a strong role in promoting equality and non-discrimination, and it is great that practices such as the diversity afternoon are developed in dialogue with students. On the other hand, there are many traditions and practices in the academic world that could certainly still be viewed critically from the point of view of equality and non-discrimination. I look forward with interest to seeing how, for example, the statutory obligation to perform equality evaluations that came into force at the University level in June will be implemented in recruitment. Discriminating structures have surely also been identified and new practices developed in some disciplines and units – we could consider how we can share knowledge about these processes and raise awareness at the Faculty level.

Diversity in teaching and degree requirements is an important theme for students, partly reflecting the fear that the perception of knowledge prevalent in “westernised” higher education institutions and the conventions of knowledge production will produce a narrowed perspective of the world. How do you see the debate on the decolonisation of the content of instruction, and how does it fit into our own structures and practices? 

The Faculty of Social Sciences has a great deal of expertise in decolonisation but, on the other hand, I think the social debate on the subject is still in its infancy. In my own role, I have not reviewed the current learning contents of the Faculty, but I am delighted that the students are active in the matter. I believe that discussion on decolonisation and colonial structures, also in terms of internal colonisation, is very necessary in Finland and in Finnish universities. I hope that students will be encouraged to offer new insights on the contents of their studies and that these insights will also be taken into account in decision-making processes and the power structures of disciplines. 

Decolonisation and the dismantling of colonial structures are also strongly linked to the dismantling of discriminating structures in everyday life at the University. An interesting example of the connection between the two is the University of West London research and development project that developed more inclusive reading lists. The University wanted to address the fact that the academic performance of students belonging to the global majority (the term used in the project) was weaker than average. In the project, reading lists were updated as a collaboration between the library and the disciplines, and the impact of reforming reading lists on student performance was investigated in the courses involved. According to the research results of the project, diversity in the reading lists improved the performance of students belonging to the global majority. The multi-year project had several full-time employees, so, of course, such a development requires financial resources. Could the University of Helsinki or one of its faculties have an opportunity for a similar project in the future? 

The amendment of the non-discrimination legislation (article in Finnish only) in June strengthened, among other things, the obligation of higher education institutions to intervene in discrimination. What does this mean in practice, and how should we prepare for our responsibilities both as students and staff? 

The amendments to non-discrimination legislation that entered into force in June strengthened the protection from discrimination and the obligation of all education providers to intervene in discrimination. The definition of discrimination was expanded to cover situations where the education provider has not addressed the discrimination that has come to its attention. If non-interference deemed to constitute discrimination is found to have occurred, the University may be obliged to pay damages to the complainant. In addition, the law changed in other respects too, for example, in recruitment processes an equality evaluation must be carried out after a transition period of two years. 

Harassment, discrimination and inappropriate or unprofessional treatment as such should be addressed in the same way as before, and I don’t see any change in this respect with the amendments that entered into force in June. It is also important that the University's staff are familiar with the University's guidelines and their own responsibilities in promoting non-discrimination. For example, the University has established guidelines for responsible interaction and Rules of Conduct for responsible interaction providing clear practices to ensure a safe learning environment. It is important that the University as an organisation and all of us members of staff are able to receive information against discrimination or its suspicion, address problems when they arise, and rectify practices and operating models that have been identified as harmful. 

The theme of equality sometimes appears mainly as a minefield filled with rules and sanctions, and that is why some people shy away from or even avoid tackling issues involved in it. How could this situation be turned around so that investing in diversity, equality and non-discrimination would begin to be perceived as an act increasing the wellbeing of all? 

Equality and non-discrimination legislation provides the framework for my own work while imposing certain obligations on the University. Non-discrimination and equality are promoted by laws and sanctions because discrimination and inequality have been proven to exist in society. The background to legislative and planning obligations is based on the unfortunate fact that discrimination as a phenomenon undermines the wellbeing and the prerequisites for a good life of many people each and every day. Overlooking discrimination or avoiding the topic can also be considered to constitute acts. This is also the basis for the definition in the revised Non-Discrimination Act, according to which non-interference in discrimination can be understood as a discriminating act in itself. It is also a great privilege if there is no discrimination in your everyday life and you have no need to think about it. Not everyone can make this choice. 

We cannot avoid discussing equality, diversity and discrimination at the University just because it feels difficult, because we have a legal obligation to do so. On the other hand, I believe that the University community has excellent prerequisites to understand changing and complex concepts if they consider them important for their own work or studies. However, the importance of management attitudes and, for example, available working hours is emphasised in how valuable equality and non-discrimination issues are perceived to be in the organisation and whether familiarisation with them is considered part of the job description. 

I personally think that there is no need to pit the perspectives of discrimination and wellbeing against each other. Both are important to keep in mind as we strive for a more equal, non-discriminating, diverse and inclusive University. We can be aware of and strive to change the discriminating structures of society while striving to promote the wellbeing of all and a diverse work and study community.