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Department of Odontology to investigate its study environment after minority students' claims

Dentistry — Almost 20 male students on the dentistry master's degree programme have told the University Post that they face discrimination because of their ethnicity. The department management is now launching an internal investigation.

»I am, first of all, sorry to hear about these experiences. I think we do everything we can to create a safe and inclusive environment on the dentistry study programme.«

READ ALSO: »Minority dental students: »In the ideal world, we all start at level 0 … but I feel that we begin at minus 5«

This is according to Anne Havemose-Poulsen, Head of the Department of Odontology (School of Dentistry) at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). She has just read the articles in the University Post, where nearly 20 of the department’s students speak of a ‘toxic’ study environment with discrimination by their instructors because of their ethnicity.

The students speak of a harsh tone of voice at the department, lower levels of professional supervision from instructors, and clinical courses where they experience stereotyping and the risk of illegitimately being failed on courses.

»I feel that there is a large quality difference in the degree programme that ethnically Danish students get and the degree programme that we get,« says one of the students who has an Iraqi background.

And it does make an impression on Anne Havemose-Poulsen.

»With a case of this scope, we need to approach it as a psychological working environment matter,« says the head of department, who now intends to launch an internal investigation based on the testimonials in the University Post.

Instructors will be saddened

The plan is to hire an ‘impartial third party’, more specifically a consultant with skills in psychological working environment, to investigate why the students’ perceive themselves as being the target of discrimination, she says.

»Tina Lewis, head of studies, is to reach out to Dogukan Jesper Gür, who started this process by contacting the University Post. Then we will get the external consultant to read the articles and the latest study environment survey and set up a dialogue with both our students and our instructors, so that we can clarify the matter and improve the psychological work and study environment. Because it should definitely not be like you describe it. Nobody should be exposed to this,« says Anne Havemose-Poulsen.

»Our instructors are truly dedicated and passionate about educating Denmark’s smartest dentists, and I’m sure that they have no discrimination intention. So I’m sure that they will also be very sorry to hear about this.«

As head of department what do you think about the discrimination that the students are taking issue with?

»What they are addressing is one facet of something larger. We need to know more about what it is exactly, and which processes we need to take a closer look at.«

I think it seems quite specific and concrete when the students talk about the discrimination they face. Some of them, for example, fail on their clinical courses for non-academic reasons.

»It needs to be said that relatively few, 5 people at the max, do not get their course certificate for the clinical courses out of a year cohort of up to 80 students. And it’s not that, on the last day, you’re suddenly told that you’ve failed, because you have been absent once, or something like that. When you, as an instructor, can see that a student does not have the qualifications to carry out a part of patient treatment, then you start to look to find out whether there is something that needs to be improved. The students are informed both orally and in writing about this at an interim evaluation.«

A number of students now say, however, that they feel like they are being failed either without warning or without an adequate academic reason for their failing.

»I’m really sorry to hear that, because that’s not how things takes place according our agreements. There must be something in our communication that has not been clear enough on how much energy is used in the fortunately few cases where students do not receive a course certificate. The cases are discussed and reviewed a lot, and a plan needs to be drawn up for how the students can succeed. We are interested in having as many students as possible moving forward.«

Unlike ordinary exams, the clinic does not have a third party to assess how the student performs. The students say that this makes it very difficult to argue against an instructor’s assessment, and that this can lead to unfair treatment.

»It is correct that one instructor has the main responsibility for the students. However, in cases where things do not go as planned, there will always be other employees from the department involved.«

Is it not a risk that both the student and the instructor are put in a difficult situation when there is no external co-examiner when disagreements arise?

»Yes, it’s a difficult situation, and it’s also a difficult situation for our teaching staff. This is why we need to take a more in-depth look at where it is that the problem arises. Is it because of a lack of information? Do we need to focus on what the requirements are for getting a course diploma? These things we thought we had made clear to the students. But the criticism suggests that we need to be better on this point,« says Anne Havemose-Poulsen.

The general issue of the assessment of clinical training is evaluated on an ongoing basis in relation to whether processes can be improved. This is on the agenda next week when the Department of Odontology has its academic day.

Nobody should be treated unfairly

You talk a lot about the information level. Based on what I spoke to the students about, I do not see the lack of information as the biggest part of their problems. The students experience being spoken to with foul language, being assessed under harder requirements, and generally receiving less teaching than their ethnic Danish fellow students.

»I’m really sorry that they experience this, because nobody should be treated unfairly. It can be a painful situation when you are sitting close to one another, as you do in clinical training. It is easy to feel as if someone has crossed a boundary,« says Anne Havemose-Poulsen.

»This is also why we need to have a third party come in and investigate the matter further.«

Some of them have attempted to complain about their experiences to the department’s management team, they say. But they get the impression that the instructors and the department dentists know each other so well that they support each other and cover up for each other.

»Let there be no doubt that if you have a real complaint and you want something done about it, then you have to go via the official channels that deal with complaints. And it may well be that we need to have this made clear to the students. I know that UCPH is working on an ethical code for both students and staff precisely to set up a clear framework for being a part of a study environment. Some campaigns will be prepared, and some videos will be made, on what to do if you encounter unfair treatment or offensive behaviour. It may not have been made clear enough here that students don’t get much out of saying cautiously that they think there is a problem, and being a little uncertain about what they should do about it.«

At a meeting of the Board of Studies in May 2022, discrimination was mentioned, and here it was suggested to students that they talk to their instructors if they, for example, experience, say, a harsh tone of voice. Is this not just an attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet?

»Students are not to complain directly to the instructor with whom she or he has had a direct confrontation. We’ve never handled it this way. I usually say to the students at the start of the study programme that my door is always open. We are a department with a high degree of physical presence. They know where they can find me and the course manager, and they will always be able to say there is this case and ask us what to do.«

But the students say that it is difficult to walk through your open door, or to approach the other employees at the department and talk about the discrimination they face, because you have a tendency to cover up for each other?

»I can, of course, only speak based on what I have experienced and what I hear myself. But I do hear that when there are enquiries from the students, the employees take it very seriously. It means a lot to our instructors that there is a good dialogue. But I am also well aware that the students are afraid of the consequences of a complaint. And we just have to say that this is not a question of something having consequences. It is a question of us being able to clarify the specific cases, and finding the best possible solution.«

READ ALSO: It is provocative and arrogant to reduce the discrimination on the dentistry programme to a question of nervousness and vulnerable students