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Discrimination confirmed at dentistry department: This is what we know so far

Odontology — There have been isolated cases of discrimination on the dentistry study programme, concludes an independent inquiry. But the discrimination is neither recurring, nor clearcut. The University Post has not been allowed to see the report, but has interviewed associate dean Jørgen Kurtzhals about it.

»The recognition of your work on the degree programme varies. And it depends on whether your name is ‘Ali’ or ‘Mathias’.«

The University Post read a number of testimonies earlier this year from dark-skinned, male odontology students, both current and former, who had experienced discrimination on their study programme because of their ethnicity.

The nearly 20 young men which the University Post spoke to, related stories of poor supervision from teachers, a harsh and patronising tone of voice, and a greater risk of failing clinical subjects for non-objective reasons.

»It’s as if every time it’s my turn, I get one-tenth of the time compared to the time the students with a Danish background get. This is very frustrating,« a student with an Iraqi background said. Another one experienced that students with brown skin were scolded more than students with Danish backgrounds.

In the wake of the University Post stories, the department’s management ordered an independent inquiry into the psychological study environment at the Department of Odontology. The inquiry was by head psychologist of the Falck healthcare group Jacob Vindbjerg Nissen, and it is now finished.

In the clinical training, there are examples of how the tone towards the students has become too harsh

Jørgen Kurtzhals, Associate Dean, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences


The University Post has not been allowed to see the actual inquiry report, only a summary of the main conclusions, which has also been sent to students and staff. The department management writes:

»There are cases of discrimination, which are real cases in terms of language use, and in terms of ignoring people. The scope [of these cases] is not recurring or unequivocal. But it calls for more initiatives to strengthen the clinical subjects in relation to their frameworks and well-being, both for students and staff. There is also a need for more knowledge about diversity at the department and at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.«

The University Post would have liked to have seen the details that are the basis of the study’s conclusions, and have therefore sought access to the inquiry’s report via a Freedom of Information request. But in the meantime, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences Jørgen Kurtzhals has agreed to be interviewed about the contents of the inquiry.

High workload and harsh study environment

Would you like to tell us what it says in the report that the University Post has not been able to see?

»Yes. The inquiry first and foremost confirms that there are cases of what the psychologist describes as ‘perceived discrimination’. We have chosen to remove the word ‘perceived’ because we believe that if you perceive discrimination, it is discrimination. However, the inquiry also concludes that these are individual cases and not structural discrimination.«

»The inquiry has to a larger degree pointed towards the existence of a harsh study environment at Odontology, which is a result of the high academic requirements. The inquiry has, for this reason, been an important tool for clarifying issues that require us as managers to start developing our study environment through a number of action plans.«


What is discrimination?

Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, and it cancels out equal opportunities in social life.

What is structural discrimination?

Structural discrimination is a condition in which discriminatory attitudes are implicit in norms, rules, traditions, and expectations of behaviour. This may, for example, be expressed when informal social codes, shared expectations and assumptions, perceptions, practices and actions have a discriminatory effect, even if this is not the intention.

What is systematic discrimination?

Systematic discrimination is when you actively or methodologically discriminate as a strategic approach.

Source: Assistant professor at the Department of Culture and Learning, Aalborg University, Mira C. Skadegård.

What’s wrong with the study environment?

»There is a high workload, and there is too much anxiety in connection with passing clinical courses, where it is usually a practicing dentist that is doing the teaching. Things can quickly escalate into a tense situation if a student makes mistakes on a patient, because it may ultimately mean that the dentist who is the instructor loses his or her authorisation. In clinical training, there are instances of the tone towards students getting too harsh.«

Are you saying that the students who believe that they have been subjected to structural discrimination, are incorrect?

»We have seen examples of clear discrimination in the inquiry, but they are not structural. And we cannot draw statistics on how ethnicity is linked to grades and failed exams – and by the way, there are very few exams. We are not allowed to.«

What evidence is there to conclude that this is not a case of structural discrimination?

»An anonymous questionnaire survey was conducted with approximately 200 responses from students and approximately 130 responses from employees. On top of this approximately 25-30 qualitative interviews were conducted with both students and staff. There were relatively few students in the qualitative part.«

What is there specifically in the inquiry that demonstrates that there is no structural discrimination?

»I don’t know these details, only the psychologist Jacob Vindbjerg Nissen does who has included them in the overall inquiry.«

But you have read the report?


And in that, there is no justification for the conclusion that this is not structural discrimination?

»The psychologist concludes this on the basis of what he assesses as being sufficient data material.«

The University Post has spoken to Jacob Vindbjerg Nissen. He does not at present wish to comment, as the collaboration with the University of Copenhagen is not yet finished.

Action plan coming up

The University Post asks the associate dean Jørgen Kurtzhals: Why can we not see the inquiry without the sensitive personal information that is probably in it?

»The inquiry is an internal working document, and it was never the idea that it should be publicly available. This is something we entrust to the HR department, and we simply follow the rules here. It’s not really up to me.«

But do you understand that it is irritating for us that we cannot see the inquiry, especially upon hearing that it to a greater extent points towards a harsh study environment rather than discrimination? What is it that is so secret?

The inquiry will represent a shift in how seriously we take the study environment

Jørgen Kurtzhals, Associate Dean, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences


»We have made it clear to the participants that they can speak out openly and have promised a confidentiality that would come under pressure if the inquiry was to be made public. I don’t want to keep things secret. Quite the contrary. I have no wish to downplay the issue of discrimination. On the part of management, we have actually chosen to take a more active approach than the inquiry recommends.«

»We did a workshop last week with a discrimination expert for all the employees at the department, so that we can all learn more about what discrimination is. This is just one of many initiatives we have launched to get started on improving the study environment.«

The students which the University Post have spoken to feel that this is structural discrimination, and that it has been prevalent for many years on the programme. Has the survey addressed the experience that this has been going on for many years, and not just here and now?

»Yes it did. It included previous study environment surveys, and in this connection we have become aware of one structural problem – namely, that there has not previously been any clear placement of responsibility for following-up on the surveys. One of the psychologist’s recommendations is also that a study environment survey should have the same status as a workplace environment survey.«

What is going to happen now?

»The psychologist has made a number of recommendations on the basis of the inquiry, and in the near future we will prepare an action plan, prioritised according to what is most urgent. The work to improve the study environment is probably something that will take several years, but we expect to see gradual improvements.«

What specific initiatives will be included in the upcoming action plan?

»We want to, first and foremost, work on strengthening the introduction to the clinical courses. The psychologist has emphasised that those part-time staff that teach on the course need to have a better pedagogical onboarding. We will also work on making the half-way evaluations a more uniform and transparent format for all students. And then there must be clearer pathways for appeal, for those students who experience offensive behaviour. The student counselling office has already started this work.«

Is there anything else that is important to say?

»I would like to emphasise how good it has been to have this inquiry carried out. I believe that the inquiry will represent a shift in how seriously we take the study environment.«

»And it is also important for me to acknowledge that our instructors have wholeheartedly come aboard on this. It is not easy to be an instructor in a very vulnerable teaching environment, as is the case with the clinical training on Odontology. Many of our instructors have also been praised in the inquiry, and everyone is interested in moving forward.«

Students need transparency

The main conclusions of the inquiry were presented to the steering committee that has followed the process last week. The steering committee includes a medical student and member of the Academic Council Dogukan Jesper Gür, who throughout the entire process has been the anonymous dentistry students’ spokesman.

READ ALSO: Academic Council member: »At first I thought: It cannot be true that there is this discrimination. But I became wiser«

Dogukan Jesper Gür is not allowed to disclose what has been said at the internal meetings. But he would like to talk about the process as he has experienced it.

Do you think you have had the dialogue and the conversation that you were hoping for?

»This is a step in the right direction, and it is a positive acknowledgement of our protest, but we are not yet there in terms of our goal. We students have not been allowed to see the whole inquiry, and we are still left with unanswered questions. From the outset, it has been important to me that there was transparency, so that everyone could keep a tab on what is going on. I don’t think we have this transparency.«

The inquiry concludes that there have been isolated cases of discrimination. What do you think of that?

»I still believe that this is a case of structural discrimination, and I cannot understand why the inquiry does not reach this conclusion. But as I said, I have not seen it, so I do not know the reasoning behind this conclusion.«

What are you hoping happens now?

»I hope that the issues that have been laid bare will also be followed up. There has been a lot of talk, so now we hope to see real action. I’m therefore very pleased to see the upcoming action plan.«