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Young Academy: data collection on ethnicity may be a “necessary evil”

In order to combat ethnic discrimination and racism, collecting data on the migration background of students and staff may be a “necessary evil”. This is a tentative conclusion drawn by The Young Academy based on interviews.

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According to The Young Academy, a group of relatively young top scientists affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), there is no data available on the “migration background, ethnicity or racialisation” of staff at Dutch universities. When it comes to students, only their ‘migration background’ is known.

Collecting such data is often met with a lot of resistance. Last year, for example, a fierce discussion ignited when some universities wanted to implement a cultural diversity ‘barometer’.


Data of this kind can, however, also be used “to identify, understand, and combat ethnic discrimination and racism”, according to one of the two reports written on the subject by The Young Academy. The researchers believe this to be a worthy cause.

The reports are based on sixteen interviews, so the authors are reluctant to draw firm conclusions. But ‘areas of concern’ do emerge from the interviews. One such concern is that some respondents find it galling that collecting such data is necessary.

For example, a Master’s student in environmental issues at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) says that white men in particular find it hard to believe the stories of non-white people. “They very often want evidence.” The president of an Afro-Dutch student association argues that data collection is necessary to “legitimise the experiences of people of colour in the Netherlands within educational institutions”.


So what kind of data should be collected? Before you know it, you are putting people into boxes they have not chosen for themselves, which would evoke resistance. Based on the interviews, The Young Academy suggests that perhaps it’s best when people decide for themselves how they want to identify.

The respondents called themselves Afro-Surinamese, Hagenees (native of The Hague), Moroccan, New Dutch, Dutch-Turkish or non-white, for example. The options are endless. Either way, it’s important that students and staff of color have a say in how they are categorised.

Furthermore, it is vital that their data is in safe hands – and not everyone has enough trust in the university in this respect. When you see how the Tax and Customs Administration handles data on ethnicity, why would an educational institution be any different? “It increases the risk of discrimination and racism, because you don’t know who’s behind that screen”, according to one black student.

The authors, as well as most respondents, ultimately seem to prefer collecting such data, as long as it is done well. However, a minority of respondents maintain fundamental objections. Amade M’charek, professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, believes that databases place too much emphasis on ethnic differences: “Putting them into a database makes them seem like very natural, universal criteria.” Moreover, she says, you run the risk of overlooking differences within such groups.

Preliminary exploration

The two reports, which complement each other and are essentially about the same topic, are intended to enrich the discussion on diversity policy and anti-racism by pointing up areas of concern. They need to be viewed as “a preliminary exploration” and not as a representative sample of the opinions held by staff and students of color.

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