Indeed, it should even be possible to have discussions about whether more equality, more diversity and more inclusion are always and everywhere a good thing. This is not so obvious, though it may depend on from where you start. There are plenty of examples of political systems that have tried to create complete equality of material outcomes that have resulted in great misery. As Rerum Novarum put it, many years before the creation of totalitarian communist states: “and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation.”
Diversity also raises many questions. Diversity according to what characteristics, for example? It could be argued that the inspired missions of Ruskin College and Plater College to promote education amongst those who might have been disadvantaged led, by design, to a student body that was not especially diverse – at least by some metrics. The same might be true for an educational institution that specialised in promoting a high-quality education for young adults with autism to help them take their place in the world of work. Such a college might well be diverse, but not in the terms that many people define the term. Indeed, the “Catholic Education Service” started as the “Catholic Poor School Committee” – promoting equality and inclusion, but not necessarily diversity as measured by modern metrics.
And some educational institutions – and for that matter businesses – are not inclusive by design. Does this matter as long other educational institutions and businesses with a different mission serve other communities?
We should be able to have a grown-up discussion about these questions whilst not excluding diverse opinions.
This is especially so, given that it is often argued that Catholic universities and schools cannot promote equality, diversity and inclusion by their nature. This charge is more often aimed at schools than universities because schools’ admissions criteria will include the practice of the faith, though in reality many pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholic. But it is also argued that Catholic universities do not, or even cannot, fully embrace the secular equality, diversity and inclusion agenda which seems to be the lodestar in our world today.
One response to this challenge is to ask the question “what kind of diversity is it when all institutions have to be identical?”. Can we not aspire to a pluralistic society in which a variety of institutions with different missions co-exist promoting diversity in the system as a whole rather than having a particular view of EDI being imposed on all?
Indeed, one might ask whether Quaker-founded businesses, such as Clarks, Cadbury and Friends Provident, with their enlightened view of how to treat workers co-existing alongside a strong Christian ethic, would be able to exist in today’s EDI world? Almost certainly, they would not.
That said, even according to secular metrics, Catholic universities are incredibly effective at promoting equality, diversity and inclusion. At St. Mary’s University, 60% of our students are from households with an income of less than £25,000 and 20% of our students are impacted by some form of disability. We provide superb support for students with mental health difficulties – a problem that challenges many universities. We do this because, inspired by our Catholic mission, we put the student at the centre of all we do. St. Mary’s University has just been ranked number one in London for student support.
Indeed, the irony is that, if Catholic universities were more effective at recruiting from Catholic schools and parishes, they would be more diverse and not less diverse according to the measures often used in the secular business and education worlds. A much lower proportion of pupils in Catholic state-funded schools are white British than is the case in the whole UK school population. Indeed, almost every racial category except for white British is represented more in Catholic schools than in schools in general.
The ethnic make-up of the Catholic population as a whole is similar to that of the UK population, though there are more white non-British and fewer white British. However, practising amongst the white Catholic population is low. The data would suggest that the proportion of black practising Catholics amongst all practising Catholics is just under five times the proportion of black people in the UK. In other words the average English and Welsh Catholic church is far more diverse than the high street.
This would not surprise any regular Mass attender, though it might be a surprise to those who wish to marginalise Christian institutions. The Catholic Church has always practised what Pope Francis urges us to emphasise more and more – it is open to everyone and reaches out to the peripheries. It is also, of course, the worldwide Church so that, as our population is enriched by migration, our Catholic Churches are too.
But the Catholic ethic of seeing people holistically, of not classifying people according to particular characteristics, of reaching out in unconditional love to all does not readily fit in with the secular approach to these issues, encouraged by law and regulation, which involves classifying people according to certain metrics and observable characteristics. There is so much more to the human person than the characteristics defined by the Equalities Act. Disadvantage comes in many forms – often not observable. And Catholic universities and schools, throughout the world, have a reputation for taking people, whatever their stories and backgrounds, and transforming their lives.