Elements of systematic protection against discrimination
in higher education


- Fact sheet on the research project -

Legal obligations of higher education institutions

Discrimination in higher education is experienced by both staff and students. In their capacity as employers, higher education institutions are subject to the provisions of the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG). These provi­sions include, among other things, the requirement for higher education institutions to set up complaints departments pursuant to section 13 of the AGG for their staff and to inform all employees of their rights and obligations. Moreover, higher education institutions can take positive action pursuant to section 5 of the AGG.  Students are not covered by this.

Establishing complaints departments pursuant to section 13 of the AGG

A large proportion of the higher education institutions surveyed fulfils its legal obligation to establish a complaints board pursuant to section 13 of the AGG. As it turns out, however, those complaints ­departments generally remain largely in­effective unless they possess a transparent complaint procedure and the necessary degree of visi­bility. However, as the practical ­examples show, several higher education institutions are already well on their way towards firmly establishing protection against ­discrimination and anti-discrimination work in the structure of their institutions.

Six elements of systematic protection against discrimination

The publication presents six elements that can contribute towards ensuring the protection against as well as the prevention of discrimination in higher education. It also explains the relevance of individual elements and provides concrete examples of potential measures. However, the list should not be considered exhaustive. Rather, uni­versities need to examine for themselves which areas to tackle first and where the need for action is particularly high. Moreover, the individual elements are not to be perceived as separate aspects, but can be integrated into an over­arching institution-wide anti-discrimination (and diversity) concept or strategy. The six elements are based, among other things, on the results of a survey on complaints departments pursuant to section 13 of the AGG at higher education institutions, which are attached to the publication.

Element 1
Identification of discrimination risks, surveys and monitoring

This element aims to raise awareness about the fact that there may be a risk of discrimination at uni­versities. It builds up a foundation for generating knowledge and seeks to address the topic of discrimina­tion risks. Which groups are a­ffected by discrimination at higher education institutions? How does discrimination show itself in higher education and what processes does it negatively impact?

Element 2
Networking and institutionalisation

The second element aims at Bringing together all stakeholders that fight discrimination or support groups affected by discrimination. Stakeholders can then coordinate their work and develop anti-discrimination ­measures together. Moreover, the objective of this institutionalisation is to firmly and permanently establish at higher education institutions protection from discrimination, the corresponding preventive mea­sures required to do so and make this fall under everyone’s responsibility.

Element 3
Awareness raising, empowerment and public relations

The aim of the third element is to highlight that discrimination can occur in higher education, to clarify what is meant by discrimination and provide information about the services offered to protect people from discrimination as well as about ­existing possibilities ­to seek consultation or file complaints. This also includes sensitising higher ­education staff – particularly those engaged in instruction and administration – towards recognising and a­voiding discrimination. The element also aims at ­helping those affected by discrimination to talk about their experiences and take action.

Element 4
Anti-discrimination counselling, initial advice and referral advice

Those affected should be able to find low-threshold contact ­persons or consultation services to turn to in case they experience discrimination at or around their higher education institution. This can be ensured, for instance, through initial advice and referral advice structu­res or confi­dants as well as specialised anti-discrimina­tion and target-group specific counselling services. The survey among higher education institutions showed that those affected do not turn to just one specific office, but­ contact different persons and offices at their institution in whom they trust and feel they can talk to about their experiences of discrimi­nation.

Element 5
Guidelines on the protection from discrimination and on complaints departments pursuant to section 13 of the AGG

This element is designed to enable those affected to file complaints in cases of discrimination and to inform themselves beforehand about the complaint procedure in place and who will be involved. It is designed to empower them to take action whenever discrimination occurs at their institution. Guidelines that set out concrete rules for the complaint procedure provide reassurance for everyone involved when it comes to deciding on how to proceed in cases of discrimina­tion and what each individual party’s role in this process is.

Element 6
Positive action

According to the General Equal Treatment Act, positive action includes all compensa­tory measures, which contribute to guaranteeing com­plete and effective equality of opportunity for all members of a higher education institution, who are disadvantaged or have to suffer the consequences of past or present discrimination in any other way (see section 5 of the AGG) (for detailed information, see also the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency’s study on positive action). By taking positive action, higher education institutions can work towards ensuring actual equality for individual groups of students or staff with specific disadvantages.