A wide range of structures aimed at promoting equality have been created in universities and student unions over the past few decades. Working groups, lists of objectives and equality programmes have been set up around equality work. Despite the progress made, work for equality is not always reflected in practice. Minorities still face many challenges in the university community that have gone unnoticed by the working groups. That is why working groups, and indeed all kinds of efforts to promote equality in the third-level education system, must be persistently continued. But what is the role of the students and student community in this?
Students should speak up and demand action – not only from the university but also from their own student community. Actions that undermine equality are often embedded in a range of established practices and norms. Can a student decide what name they want to be called by? Are students being categorised on the basis of gender? Do all students, regardless of their background, have equal access to activities and evenings out? Barriers to participation can become hard to surmount if a person is in constant fear of being misgendered or called a name you no longer use.
Student organisations can promote e quality in their student community for example by setting up policies and practices for creating safer spaces, taking action against abusive, inappropriate behaviour or reviewing the accessibility of their activities and facilities. But plans and intentions amount to nothing if they are not acted on. Could toilets be made gender-neutral or could registration forms be changed to have a separate space in which the person can write the name they prefer to use?
For change to occur, clear steps need to be taken on how equality issues will be promoted and how discriminatory and challenging structures will be addressed within the student community. Pretty words are not enough: we must also act accordingly.