Superdiversity seminars: The university as a superdiverse space – A conversation

In advance of its Superdiversity School, University College Cork held a series of short seminars introducing and exploring the concept of superdiversity. This seminar series was led by the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21) at UCC, in conjunction with Access UCC and the university’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Unit.

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Start: 28.03.2022


Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21) , Access UCC , EDI Unit

The second seminar (28th March 2022) in University College Cork’s Superdiversity seminar series focused on the theme of the university as a superdiverse space. The format of this seminar was a conversational panel discussion rather than presentations, and the aim was to invite reflections on what superdiversity may mean in the context of universities.

This seminar was chaired by Professor Nuala Finnegan, Head of the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies and Chair of UCC’S Equality Committee. Members of the panel comprised: Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire, School of Applied Social Studies, UCC; Dr Piaras MacÉinrí, Department of Geography, UCC; Dr Yanyu Guo, Department of Asian Studies, UCC; Parnika Gupta, UCC Indian Society; Busie Mhlophe, UCC Sanctuary Scholar; and Amano Miura, Fáilte Refugees Society.

Professor Finnegan began by highlighting the importance of having such discussions and exploring what we mean by terms such as ‘diversity’ and ‘superdiversity’. For example, the term ‘diversity’ is common currency across higher education today, but sometimes without due consideration of what it means to ‘live’ it, to have policies around it, and without acknowledging that people may have different interpretations of its meaning. She welcomed the opportunity to host a discussion and hear the views of others on the concept of ‘superdiversity’. Drs Caitríona Ní Laoire and Piaras MacÉinrí set the scene by providing some initial reflections. Panellists where then invited to give their thoughts on superdiversity and whether or not this has been their experience in the university setting.

Universities as ‘spaces of migration’

Reflecting on the title of the seminar, Dr Ní Laoire outlined how ‘superdiversity’ as a term used in migration studies refers to increased complexity of diversity resulting from migration and immigration today. Owing to increased mobility, people from more varied backgrounds are coming together in new patterns of diversification within our cities and societies, giving rise to new or varied patterns of intercultural contact as well as inequality and prejudice. Key questions to consider in this context include what do migration and diversity mean within the university space. In considering to what extent the university is a space for diversity and inclusion, Dr Ní Laoire noted how it is useful to think of universities as ‘spaces of migration’, where the university setting and classroom bring together people from diverse backgrounds in close proximity. In this sense, universities are both shaped by and shape flows of migration.

In the context of today’s high mobility, she argued that universities increasingly seek to position themselves as central nodes or hubs in order to attract international funds, students and expertise. Part of this involves marketing themselves as modern, open, tolerant and cosmopolitan; however, in reality, universities are not always places of openness, diversity and inclusion either in how they operate or how they feel as spaces in which to study and work. This raises key questions such as to what extent is the university a space of diversity and inclusion; or if universities bring diverse groups together, how is that mixing experienced by different groups such as migrants, international staff and students, local staff and students, and minority groups – while also recognising that there are lots of potential social differences within those groups as well.

To help us think about such issues, Dr Ní Laoire introduced the notion of ‘conviviality’, which refers to ‘living together’ (convivir) or, in this context, successful living together in highly diverse places. Conviviality, she highlighted, is not only about friendliness and sociability, but also refers to aspects such as interdependence and interrelatedness, neighbourliness, solidarity and respectful relationships. It also embraces the idea of ‘difference becoming unremarkable’ and where everyday tensions that arise between different groups are managed and negotiated rather than reified. This concept also helps to draw our attention to the everyday spaces of lived diversity, encouraging us to think about how these everyday spaces are managed, for example in a university. It raises questions such as who has access to resources and who does not, whose values become dominant and whose values are marginalised within the space. Moreover, it focuses our attention on the lived experiences of people in spaces such as the university campus, classroom, canteen, its open spaces and digital spaces, raising questions such as to what extent is our university a convivial space for everyone, where difference is unremarkable and where neighbourliness, solidarity and respectful relationships are truly experienced.

Perspectives on multiculturalism and integration

Dr Piaras MacÉinrí, a university lecturer who also works with community migrant and asylum seeker groups, noted his own experiences of migration living in the Middle East, France and Belgium. He began with some general remarks on diversity and multiculturalism and then in the context of university.

Regarding more traditional approaches to diversity, whether among migrant communities or internal minorities, he noted the ‘assimilationist’ perspective taken, where it is considered up to the migrant or minority group to adjust to the predominant culture. Multiculturalism by contrast is deemed the new norm, although Dr MacÉinrí expressed his preference for the term ‘interculturalism’. The latter, he outlined, denotes respect for and interaction between different cultures, whereas multiculturalism can imply ghettoisation or different cultures existing within their own silos. ‘Integration’ in the multicultural perspective refers to an accommodation within an agreed framework; however, within that framework, he highlighted the need to understand and get to know each other’s different cultural identities and origins. He noted how Ireland does not yet have a developed model of what multiculturalism and integration should look like, notwithstanding official documents and definitions of such terms, which still imply an onus on the migrant/minority group to adapt. By contrast, there is no reference to the mainstream community he argued, implying that they remain unchanged by the arrival and influences of these migrant communities.

Referring to other definitions of integration (e.g. British Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins), Dr MacÉinrí underlined the importance of viewing integration as a dialogue between different identities and cultures within a shared society.

In terms of university life, Dr MacÉinrí raised the question whether policies introduced may look good but are somewhat superficial rather than enabling real integration to take place. One possible way to approach this, he suggested, is to distinguish between policies that are largely tokenistic or ineffective, policies that seek to fight the negative (e.g. anti-racist) and those that focus on the positive by accepting difference and promoting dialogue, interaction and understanding between different groups. He highlighted the importance of exploring the lived experience of migrant and minority students attending our universities and the need to adopt a ‘nothing about us without us’ approach in creating university policies.

Key questions he raised in the context of the seminar discussion were as follows: is it still up to the incomer to adjust; are people only welcome as long as they assimilate; what measures are tokenistic and what measures are meaningful on a day-to-day level in our university campuses (e.g. would multi-lingual signage help or not); what practical measures can we take to introduce more meaningful policies; and how can we provide ‘a listening voice’ without being patronising, e.g. ensuring that migrant/minority groups feel heard and that their voices matter?

Exploring lived experiences

The remainder of the seminar focused on the lived experiences of other panellists. To help frame the discussion, two key questions were posed as follows:

To what extent would you say the university is a space of diversity and inclusion?

Reflecting on this question, panellists noted both positive and negative aspects of the university as a space of diversity and inclusion. It was felt that considerable progress has been made in diversity and inclusion in the university and that it has become a more linguistically and culturally diverse place in terms of its student population. Panellist Busie Mhlophe highlighted the importance of being granted a university scholarship as an asylum seeker, noting how it has given her a great sense of dignity and how both financial and emotional support provided by the university has been hugely valuable. Another panellist, Dr Yanyu Guo who is a staff member and originally from China, observed how opportunities to engage with other non-English colleagues and students has been a positive experience, enabling her to overcome the challenges of working in a predominantly English-speaking environment.

Regarding areas for improvement, one observation was the lack of Black and Asian minority ethnic students in leadership positions in student life, along with students with disabilities and mature students. Accommodation-related issues for students from other countries were also highlighted by Parnika Gupta, for example, students being asked not to cook or to restrict cooking certain spicy foods. The need to develop a greater number of access opportunities for groups such as asylum seekers was also underlined. From the staff perspective, the small proportion of university staff from other countries was noted as a shortcoming as well as the lack of opportunities to learn languages from other Asian countries.

What can we do to bring about change in our universities?

In terms of things we can do to improve diversity and inclusion in our universities, a number of panellists highlighted the importance of university-wide cultural events to encourage engagement and awareness-raising about different cultures and languages at the university. While changes can be made at policy level, such as staff and student quotas, the importance of cultural engagement was underlined.

Suggestions included organising a cultural event for staff and students to raise awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity at the university and promote multilingualism. The importance of food as ‘a universal language’ was also noted and events showcasing food from different cultures was suggested as a way to generate interest in different cultures.

Another panellist, Amano Miura, underlined the importance of storytelling and opportunities for people to recount their experiences, for example of migration or asylum seeking, through discussion panels and speaker events. She also noted the unique skillsets and resilience of people from minority groups due to the challenges they have faced. Providing more opportunities for such groups to become involved in student life and recognising that they may not have the same time and resources to network was underlined; therefore, finding ways to bypass quotas for student bodies and create supports to enable them to become engaged was deemed crucial.

Opportunities for mature students to access the university and the critical importance of education throughout the life cycle was raised as a key point by another panellist. The importance of a ‘see it to be it approach’ was highlighted and how the presence of people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets in the university really matters.

Other contributions to the seminar included the point that diversity improves our learning environments in the university, enriching our learning and research spaces. While this view is becoming more widely accepted in the higher education sector, it is less clear how to achieve and expand this diversity. It was also noted that diversity should be for everyone, both the mainstream and the non-traditional. Finding ways to engage in more authentic and meaningful ways, beyond discrete events, and in ways that can be sustained was raised as a further point.

Dr MacÉinrí noted that the dramatic demographic changes that have occurred in Irish society since the 1990s, including increased and more varied patterns of migration, means that it is now more important than ever to sustain and integrate our increasingly diverse populations – both within the university and in the wider society. The need to ‘disrupt the existing mainstream spaces’ and to move towards a more ‘democratic space’ in our universities was highlighted, helping to ensure that engagement becomes embedded within the structures of the university and that inclusive diversity is sustained in our everyday practices.

Image source: uPic - UCC's image and video collection


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