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UNESCO chair awarded to UiS

The University of Stavanger (UiS) has been awarded a UNESCO professorship on the topic of diversity, inclusion and education.

Man with gray hair and beard smiles towards camera Geir Skeie is the new UNESCO chair at the University of Stavanger

- So-called "UNESCO chairs" are very prestigious. The chairs are awarded to institutions around the world that have an academic environment within a field relevant for UNESCO, Professor Geir Skeie explains. 

He holds a position as professor of religious education, working in the Department of Cultural Studies and Languages. He has been appointed to assume the position of UNESCO professor. He will be working with a large group of colleagues at UiS and VID Specialized University who are collaborating with UiS in this programme.

The University of Stavanger and UNESCO have signed a contract that will run for the coming four years, and on 11 May, UiS will host a digital inauguration of the programme at UiS (see fact box for more information).

- This is the first time UiS has been awarded a professorship of this type, making UiS part of a larger network of similar UNESCO positions throughout the world. This provides us with a visible public rostrum that offers the opportunity to open some doors, although we cannot say at present exactly which doors or when they will be opened, says Klaus Mohn, rector of UiS. 

UiS was awarded the professorship based on an application to UNESCO.

- No funding accompanies the award, but we will become part of a larger network in the UNESCO family and will acquire an additional platform from which to promote diversity and inclusion in an educational perspective, Mohn explains.

Creates meeting places

Being a host institution for a "UNESCO chair" involves a large amount of networking at home and abroad, creating meeting places for people who traditionally may not work together and putting relevant topics on the public agenda.

- One example is the way we handle diversity and inclusion within the various academic traditions at UiS. When we begin talking with one another about common issues such as the diversity in the classroom, we see that we have many commonalities, but whereas I regard diversity from a religious or philosophical perspective, my colleagues at the Centre for Learning Environment see it from a sociopsychological point of view. We have to get out of our comfort zones and try to understand theories that we're not accustomed to using ourselves, and occasionally we have to be introspective and examine our own thoughts. There is diversity in that too, Professor Skeie adds. 

This work is also intended eventually to be integrated in some of the study programmes, in various ways.

- The research group consists of people who work in basic and advanced teacher education, culture, religion, inclusive pedagogy, language and more general perspectives, Skeie says.

Wants collaboration outside academia

The initiative to prepare and send an application to UNESCO originated in Stavanger municipality, through Sølvberget and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), who wanted to cooperate more closely with UiS on these topics.

- Later, VID Specialized University and FijiStiftelsen joined in, and we saw that this might be a good way for UiS to work with role players outside of academia who share an interest in these issues.

All parties were involved in the application work. For Skeie, it was important to operate with real teamwork from the start.

- Diversity and inclusiveness are complex and major social processes. We see this as a good opportunity to place stronger focus on what we are already committed to doing. It's a field of societal scope, and we can't deal with it merely within a narrow, academic world. We are already in the process of developing cooperation locally, nationally and internationally.

UiS has a defined area of research in this field of inquiry, and the UNESCO collaboration will be based in this research group.

- Academia today is largely about teamwork. Although the professorship is technically associated with me and my position, it is a feather in the hat of our entire research environment - we are in this together.

Sustainability goals are key

The professorship and the topics of diversity, inclusion and education are closely linked with the UN's fourth sustainable goal, equitable rights to quality education.  

- This goal encompasses the perspective of inclusiveness. Everyone must have access to education and be able to use it in society. In this regard, it is important to examine how it is to be in the educational system. Although Norway has a well-functioning educational system, we a multiple diversity of people in the system and extreme variation in how they perceive it. This brings us directly to the issue of diversity and inclusion, which in many respects is about shared democratic citizenship.

- History reveals that it is difficult to achieve social equality through education, even though this has been a political desire. Because this has proven so difficult in practice, we need knowledge about why this happens and increased cooperation between research scholars, politicians and workers in the schools and kindergartens.

Broad relevance at UiS

The professor of religion also believes that the UNESCO professorship and the focus on diversity and inclusion can have positive internal effects on UiS

- We know that there are many at UiS who are enthusiastic about these things, across the academic community. There have been various meeting points over the years, not least among those who are engaged in issues involving multi-cultural Norway, but we have never had a good enough structure for the work on diversity and inclusion. The UNESCO professorship is an opportunity to create communication across the entire university, Skeie says.

The topic is relevant for everyone who works with health and the social sciences, education, the humanities – but also in the fields of technology and business.

- The issues we need to address must be resolved across sectors, and challenges linked with diversity and inclusion emerge in different ways and in different disciplines, Skeie thinks.

UiS also has a diversity of students and staff members, who come from many countries and different backgrounds.

- We are a work collective and have the same challenges as other working environments. It is not merely a matter of making students good at working with these things through their educational programmes, and conducting research that yields increased insight, but also of simply becoming better at dealing with diversity and inclusion in our own working environment. We would like this to occur by itself, but it's not quite as easy as that, Skeie concludes. 

Text: Anja Kristin Bakken, translated by Heidi Ødegård
Photo: Mari Hult