According to the report, about twice as many people with an immigrant background as those without an immigrant background plan to pursue a doctoral degree after completing their master’s. At the same time, those with an immigrant background are overrepresented in research positions, but underrepresented in professor positions and lower-level teaching positions. (Illustration: iStock)
Diversity in academia:

Immigrants want to be included, but aren’t

People with an immigrant background are more motivated to conduct research and pursue a doctoral degree than those without an immigrant background. However, according to a new report, there is no advantage to being an immigrant in academia.
June 22, 2016

“If you have an immigrant background, you’re less likely to get an academic position,” says Ida Drange, a researcher at the Work Research Institute.

It’s hard to know why this might be, based on the statistics in the report from the Work Research Institute and the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), but Drange strongly believes the reason is not a lack of motivation.

“We can only establish that there’s a tendency, but if we look at other parts of the report, we know at least that a lack of ambition is not the reason. It probably has more to do adaptations on the part of the employer, as the case study shows.”

Read the report from the Work Research Institute and NIFU, which was prepared on commission from the KIF Committee (in Norwegian only).

Highly motivated to conduct research

One of the quantitative studies shows that almost twice as many people with an immigrant background plan to pursue a doctoral degree after finishing their master’s degree than those without an immigrant background.


Liv Anne Støren, researcher at NIFU. (Photo: NIFU)

“Regardless of gender, age, academic marks or subject area, those with an immigrant background planned much more often to pursue a doctoral degree or wanted to continue conducting research in the next five years than those without an immigrant background. This is especially the case for those with a non-western background,” says Liv Anne Støren, a researcher at NIFU.

The difference is greatest in economics and business studies, where there is generally little interest in research. In these subjects, an especially large number of people with a non-western immigrant background had plans to pursue a doctoral degree.

“There is limited data for some of the subject areas, especially for those with an immigrant background, so it’s difficult to divide up the figures according to western or non-western background. But when it was possible to do this, the percentage who wanted to work with research or earn a PhD was generally highest among those with an immigrant background,” says Støren.

A select group?

According to Støren, the reason that so many with an immigrant background want to continue working with research is partly because they represent a select group.

“Of those who have immigrated to Norway, a lower percentage of this group complete upper secondary school. As a result, there are also fewer of them who have the opportunity to begin a higher education. This means that immigrants who have taken a master’s degree represent a select group. Those who have done this can therefore be regarded as especially motivated to pursue a higher education,” she says.

However, this is not the case for those who are born in Norway and have parents who are immigrants.

“Norwegian-born youth with an immigrant background are strongly represented in higher education, at least to the same degree as their peers without an immigrant background. This is true even though the parents of Norwegian-born youth with an immigrant background have a lower level of education than the parents of youth without an immigrant background. For this reason, they cannot be said to represent a select group.”

According to Støren, the knowledge that people with an immigrant background can face special difficulties in working life could also explain the higher level of ambition.

“In general, it’s harder for recent graduates with an immigrant background to gain a foothold in the labour market than it is for those without an immigrant background. We’ve seen this in numerous studies. It’s natural to believe that they know this and therefore expect to have more problems getting hired. It could be that they plan to get a PhD to make sure they can find a job,” she says.

Less likely to have a professorship and teaching position

In the second quantitative study, Ida Drange and Tanja Askvik have looked at the likelihood of obtaining a position in academia. The report shows vast differences between subject areas when it comes to a person’s country of origin.


Ida Drange, researcher at the Work Research Institute. (Photo: AFI)

“The differences are greatest in educational subjects, which also have the highest percentage of Norwegians without an immigrant background. The differences in country of origins are less pronounced in the social sciences, law and the health sciences,” says Drange.

Drange believes that the low probability of getting hired in an academic position may be tied to the fact that in some subject areas it is more appealing to seek positions outside of academia.

“Part of the explanation for the differences may be that we haven’t looked at whether people with an immigrant background have relevant positions outside of academia. For instance, many with doctoral degrees in medicine are employed as chief physicians at hospitals. These are not regarded as relevant positions in academia, although university hospitals are a borderline case.”

Those with an immigrant background are overrepresented in research positions, but underrepresented in professor positions and lower-level teaching positions at universities and university colleges – even though the respondents have come just as far in their career pathways.

“We can say that there are systematic differences based on country of origin if we look at the likelihood of getting an academic position,” says Drange.

However, she cannot say for sure why this is so.

“A possible reason is that doctorate holders with an immigrant background have had careers as researchers rather than as teachers. Another is that people with an immigrant background have more difficulties meeting the requirements of professor positions and use a longer time to take this career step.”

Higher probability for women

With regard to gender, the quantitative study shows that women are more likely to get a position in academia than men. This is true regardless of country of origin.

“If we compare people with the same country of origin, women and men follow the same trends. However, women have a marginally greater likelihood than men of obtaining a relevant position in academia,” says Drange.

If we look at the gender differences in light of the type of academic positions people have, the gender differences are somewhat different.

“In all position categories, women are more likely to have a position in academia, except for professorships. Men are more likely to have a professor position, regardless of immigrant background.”

“Among men with a majority background and western background, given that they already hold a position in academia, the likelihood that they have a professor position is 57 and 58 percent, respectively. In contrast, men with a non-western immigrant background have the same probability as women with a western immigrant background and majority background, at 39 percent,” explains Drange.

The analysis does not give an explanation for this, but Drange is calling for research focusing on the significance of gender and immigrant background.


Project manager Cathrine Egeland, researcher at the Work Research Institute. (Photo: AFI)

“We need intersectional analyses to explore whether the barriers to an academic position are the same for women with and without an immigrant background. There is also a need for knowledge about drop-out rates in the transition to the various levels, since barriers can arise at different career stages for men and women with an immigrant background.”

Too few Norwegian-born with an immigrant background

Norwegian-born people with immigrant parents are the group that most of us want to know more about. However, only a small part of the report discusses this group – the chapter on master’s degree holders and their plans and desires for a research career.

“Age is the main reason. Many of those born in Norway of immigrant parents have simply not come far enough in the educational system. It’s difficult to get a permanent position in the higher education sector. Many have to wait until they reach their 40s. It will be easier to say something definitive about Norwegian-born people with an immigrant background in a few years from now. They are in the system, but there are currently so few of them that it’s not possible to keep them anonymous,” says project manager Cathrine Egeland.

Even at the master’s level, there are so few Norwegian-born students with an immigrant background that they cannot be placed into a separate group.

“Everyone is concerned about that group because we know many of them are pursuing a higher education. But so far that group is so small in studies like this that it’s not possible to separate them out. This is why I’ve combined them with those born outside of Norway,” explains Liv Anne Støren.

“An important conclusion, however, is that there is enormous recruitment potential to the research sector in both of these groups,” says Støren.

Lack of inclusion

The qualitative part of the project, a case study of three academic institutions, shows that Norwegian academic institutions have been most concerned about the various aspects of the recruitment process.

“Until now the focus has been mostly on recruiting academics from abroad, known as ‘international recruitment’. The effort to recruit foreign-born academics who are already in Norway is less visible,” says Tatiana Maximova-Mentzoni, a researcher at the Work Research Institute.

The researchers have concluded that the focus on recruitment is not enough.

“Nobody wants somebody to come to them later and say that they made a mistake in the recruitment process. But this has happened at the expense of something that’s at least equally important, namely, inclusion,” says project manager Cathrine Egeland.


Tatiana Maximova-Mentzoni, researcher at the Work Research Institute. (Photo: AFI)

“Our study shows that many informants have a hard time in the initial period after being hired,” explains Maximova-Mentzoni, and refers to the interviews with the roughly 20 foreign-born academics from the case study.

“This is due to a lack of knowledge about written and unwritten rules at the workplace, backbiting and challenging social inclusion. Managers at the case institutions have expressed concern that it can be difficult to retain talented foreign-born employees. This is why we’re proposing a shift in the focus of diversity efforts: from recruitment to development of inclusive workplaces in academia,” she says.

According to the researchers, the difficulty in retaining foreign-born academics is linked to the institutions’ core activity.

“There’s a gap between approved plans and practices on the one hand, which are supposed to ensure that higher education institutions take their employer role seriously, make adaptations and protect their employees against discrimination. On the other hand, the core activity in academia is almost detached from consideration for the employees because the research assignment comes before the employees’ welfare at the workplace,” says Egeland.

Must take diversity seriously

The report concludes that if academics with an immigrant background are to feel more included and stay at Norwegian workplaces, institutions in the research sector must improve the working environment.

“The institutions must take their employer responsibility seriously and lay a foundation for inclusive workplaces. All employees will benefit from this,” says Egeland.

“The leadership’s role is critical here. We need decisive managers who ensure the development of an organizational culture that cultivates respect for differences and encourages communication and openness. The informants stressed the importance of the manager’s ability to see his or her employees and ensure that all of them are included in work processes,” says Maximova-Mentzoni.

“Mentoring programmes can be helpful too. Since this involves working life culture, employees with an immigrant background may benefit from talking with ethnic Norwegians who’ve been in the system for a long time to learn more about the working life culture here and what actually happens. The mentoring programme can help people to understand the workplace they’ve come to,” adds Egeland.

The researchers also believe that Norwegian academia should talk about what diversity in academia actually means.

“In addition, the institutions should think through and talk about what equality and diversity in academia entails. The report points out that diversity is often held up as something important and just, both for higher education and research, but what this means is often left up to the individual employer,” continues Egeland.

According to the researchers, these efforts should have their basis in the top-level management and the institutional steering documents.

“A good starting point for a diversity strategy is to analyse the challenges and opportunities that ethnic diversity creates. This makes it possible to work with diversity based on specific objectives related to the needs of the institutions. The spotlight is not directed towards the employees with an immigrant background, but towards the academic community. In this way we avoid creating differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’,” says Maximova-Mentzoni.

Translated by Connie Stultz.

The report “It’s not an advantage to be a foreigner”

The report was commissioned by the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (the KIF Committee) and prepared by the Work Research Institute and the Nordic Institute for Studies of Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU). The authors are Tatiana Maximova-Mentzoni, Cathrine Egeland, Tanja Askvik, Ida Drange, Liv Anne Støren, Trude Røsdal and Agnete Vabø.

The report consists of a literature review, analyses of selected, available and relevant statistics, as well as qualitative case studies of three institutions: the University of Bergen, Oslo and Akershus University College and SINTEF.

The case studies have encompassed individual interviews and focus group interviews with academic staff, diversity advisers and managers, as well as analyses of strategy documents prepared by a traditional university, a university college and a research institute.

Main findings:

  • Master’s degree holders with an immigrant background have a much greater desire to work with research and more often plan to pursue a doctoral degree than master’s degree holders without an immigrant background.
  • The difference is greatest in economics and business studies between master’s degree holders with a non-western immigrant background (33.3 percent) and their counterparts without an immigrant background (7 percent).
  • People with an immigrant background are less likely to hold a position in academia compared with people with a majority background.
  • This tendency is the same within all subject areas, but the differences vary somewhat. The fewest differences are seen in technical subjects, health sciences, social sciences and law. The differences are greater in the arts and humanities, educational subjects and economics and business studies.
  • Women are more likely to have an academic position in all position categories except for professorships. Men with a western (57 percent) and majority background (58 percent) are most likely to have a professorship, whereas non-western men and majority women have the same probability (39 percent).
  • The case study shows that the informants have not viewed the recruitment process as problematic, but they feel there is a lack of inclusion in the workplace. They also say that little is done at their institutions to create an inclusive environment.
  • Many informants stressed the importance of good management for multicultural workplaces. This is both to ensure objective recruitment processes, but even more importantly, to create inclusive working environments and opportunities for further development.
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