Learning by experience to build flexible, resilient leaders

Programme Directors Lisa Sofianos and Gary ReadAhead of the Strategic Leadership Programme later this academic year, programme directors Lisa Sofianos and Gary Reed reflect on why experiential learning is a key part of the programme.

Poor Einstein has been mercilessly mined for inspirational quotes for many years, but here’s one we can’t resist: “The only source of knowledge is experience”. We are unlike Einstein in many ways, but on this we share his commitment to the value of experiential learning in transforming abstract theory into practical knowledge. This is one of the tenets that informs and shapes the design of the Strategic Leadership Programme (SLP).

Another is that, on SLP, we know that we are working with people who are already effective in their roles running complex academic institutions. With this firmly in our minds, we see our job as facilitators is to offer provocations and reframing to help participants move their thinking somewhere new. For us, this is the real work of leadership development, with responsibilities on both sides to learn.

So far so good, but how does this translate into programme activity? 
SLP alumni tell us one of the elements they really value is the simulation exercise where participants take a role in the leadership team of a fictitious – but oddly familiar – university. Their task is to work together to complete some stretching challenges set by the “vice chancellor”. They present their solutions back to the “Executive Board” and are given specific and constructive feedback on their process.

The simulation allows participants to experiment with organisational dynamics in an environment that is safe and removed from the immediacy of their own organisational context. They can take risks, try out the new ideas they have encountered earlier in the programme, and not worry about the consequences, beyond what they can learn from them. This is not a role-play, rather participants are encouraged to step outside their tried and tested approaches and begin to find their own authentic expression of leadership.

Past participants say the real value of this exercise is in helping them to gain insights into:

  • How they operate in a group of leaders and their ideas about roles and responsibilities
  • How they lead and are affected by group dynamics
  • Their assumptions about organisations and their own institutions
  • How they react to pressure
  • How they prioritise and maintain focus
  • Their levels of creativity

The environment is fast-paced and complex, but it is safe and supportive, and most importantly, fun!

And that highlights another of our tenets. Serious learning in a fun, relaxed, and safe environment is an indispensable SLP ingredient.

We look forward to you joining us on the programme.

The Strategic Leadership Programme is for aspiring senior leaders and aims to build leaders who are flexible and resilient.

Find out more and apply:
Strategic Leadership Programme
Application Deadline: Friday 4 May 2018
Module 1: Wednesday 16 – Thursday 17 May 2018
Module 2: Tuesday 26 – Thursday 28 June
Location: Birmingham

Lisa Sofianos has recently co-authored a Leadership Foundation stimulus paper, Exploring the Impact of Coaching in Higher Education, which is available online for members of the Leadership Foundation. 

Why mentors and networks are so important

Maxine de Brunner was previously deputy assistant commissioner, Metropolitan Police. She will join us on the 13 March 2018 as a guest speaker at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in Edinburgh. Ahead of her talk, Maxine reflects on the importance of mentorships and support networks for women to progress to top leadership positions.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself
I spent thirty years in policing and retired as a deputy assistant commissioner in 2016. I have led many large teams as the director of intelligence and the London ‘prepare’ lead for counter-terrorism.

I spent the last two years as the transformation director. I am most proud of helping others develop as leaders, transforming an organisation and trooping the colour on horseback with the Queen. I have spent that last two years running my own business and working with two education charities.

What does good leadership mean to you?
Good leadership means being prepared to admit when you’re wrong, recognising that it is others who deliver for you and the investment you make in people will pay you back many times over. Great leadership is all about the teams you build and the guidance you give them. Supporting them when things go wrong and taking the responsibility for the difficulties while allowing your team the limelight when things go well. As a leader, it is not about you but your people.

For you as a woman, what has been your greatest insight in terms of your journey to leadership?
Understanding that great teams need balance, not just in terms of gender but all aspects of diversity. I have found that you have to be determined, focused, prepared to work very hard as well as be willing and able to negotiate and influence.

At the start of your career, what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?
The biggest barrier at the start of my journey was that there were no women at the top of my organisation and very few in the lower ranks. Women did not have equal pay, pension rights and did not receive the same officer safety training as male colleagues. They were viewed as necessary to look after children and deal with sexual assault cases. I think the most powerful thing women can do when facing barriers is to join together so that they can influence as a single body.

What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?
The main milestone for me was understanding that you could have children and still have a great career. I was given a project when I came back from maternity leave, but I thought (as is the law) that I should have my old job back. I found that I had to insist on this requirement and in the end, they gave in and allowed me to return to my job. I wanted to come back four days a week but did not have the courage to ask for this. My mentor brokered the subject on my behalf and helped me negotiate my first year back.

What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient?
Being reflective and prepared to debrief your own actions, decisions and consequences. I think when times are hard it helps to focus on positive outcomes and not internalise situations. They are not usually personal but about the business, but it is easy to forget that. It also helps to have self-belief and confidence that what you are doing is right. That confidence will come from outcomes, achievements and your network.

What is the biggest insight you’ve had from working with women in higher education on their leadership journey, the opportunities and the challenges?
I have found through my work in education that there are many women in teaching but many senior positions are still often filled by men. Women work incredibly hard in their roles, but senior women colleagues have also focused on themselves and taken time to invest in themselves, have a clear plan to achieve their goals. Leadership is not just about doing the tasks really well, it is also about having the confidence to look up into the future.

How important do you think mentors, role models and networks are in supporting women’s leadership?
The role of mentors and networks must never be underestimated. Being part of a strong group of women gives you the power to negotiate your futures. It is vital that women don’t give this away.

Just look at the recent BBC pay gap situation, a group of women joined together to talk as one body. That helps take the heat away from individuals, and where there are individual positions taken, they are fully supported by the group. It’s very powerful and I have no doubt they will achieve a fair outcome.

How can initiatives like Aurora help women and their organisation achieve their potential?
Aurora can help women understand the values of mentoring and group influence while giving practical tools and help on the journey. It can inspire many to believe in themselves.

Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?
I think if I was starting again I would have got involved in a network much earlier as being alone was much harder and many heads are much better than one when problems arise.

Finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?
The most inspiring woman leader I have met is a lady called Barbara Wilding, she retired as the chief constable of South Wales Police. Barbara mentored me, employed me in a senior role when I thought it was impossible, encouraged me and sponsored me for senior courses and strategic command. She was a great leader herself and cared deeply about others. She was very careful not to pull the ladder up behind her but develop the leaders of tomorrow. I owe her a great deal. It was her influence that enabled me to be supported as a chief officer and whenever things went well or even not so well, she wrote to me with her thoughts. I still have her letters today.

About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 4,635 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1,158 women attending in 2017-18 alone.

Dates, location and booking
We will shortly be releasing the Aurora dates for 2018-19. To register your interest please get in touch aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.

Onwards and Upwards longitudinal study
In March 2018, the Leadership Foundation released the year 2 Aurora Longitudinal Study as a Leadership Insight.


Learning from other cultures to tackle inequality

Woman holding her fingers in a cross position over her mouthIn the lead up to International Women’s Day, Nicola Sayers reflects on the importance of cross-cultural perspectives for universities looking to better understand their own systemic inequalities and to make real changes. 

The idea of a ‘Women’s Day’ goes back to 1909, when the Socialist Party of America held a ‘National Women’s Day’ in New York. The international element soon followed, with Russia observing an ‘International Women’s Day’ in 1913; and by the 1970s International Women’s Day, 8th March, was an official fixture in the United Nations calendar. A longstanding history, then, but what, really, is the point of a ‘Women’s Day’?
One might with good reason to argue that, until genuine equality is achieved, every day should be a so-called ‘Women’s Day’, yet another day in which we should press for progress, and must remember the ongoing cultural, social and structural inequalities that women face. But if there is a point to singling out one day, it is surely as a chance to take stock, a chance both to celebrate progress that has been made (which, since 1909, is clearly substantive) and to call attention to the huge amount of work that still needs to be done.

Progress is not linear, of course. Some years chip away at the same old battles, others witness regression, and others yet prove that sizeable shifts can occur quite suddenly – like the coin pusher game in arcades, the pennies build up over time and then all drop quite suddenly. This last year, arguably, was one such year.

The many women’s marches, the viral spread of the #timesup and #metoo hashtags, not to mention race awareness movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #rhodesmustfall: this feels like a moment in which long-standing issues are being stirred up and, for the first time in some time, there is mass interest. None of these movements is without complexity, and around each, rightfully, important debates are being had. Does the visibility of Hollywood in #timesup helpfully raise awareness, or encourage progress only among the relatively privileged, detracting attention from the professions and classes in which harassment and barriers to opportunity are worst? Does #metoo shine a legitimate spotlight on predatory behaviours which might until now have been considered borderline acceptable, or does it risk judging in a media circus what is better judged in a court of law? And does #rhodesmustfall bring crucial awareness to the historical (and continuing) oppression that many of our institutions of higher education are founded on, or does it force surface action on matters that appease riled-up student bodies while glossing over the deeper, systemic discussions that need to take place?

But in all of this what is certain is that there is at present momentum around issues of gender and race that universities would do well to attend to. In this effort, in-depth research is an important correlate of media and social media interest in these issues, so that the push for progress is always backed up by real knowledge. The Leadership Foundation strives always to be conducting timely research on race and gender that will prove useful to leaders looking to make real change in higher education contexts.
One example of such research is a recent Leadership Insight report, Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership?

First and foremost, the report provides important information for anyone looking to make changes in the Hong Kong university system. It is fascinating, for instance, that there is an outright mismatch between what male leaders perceive as the barriers facing women (family issues and work-life balance) and what women academics themselves perceive as the primary barriers facing them (gender bias and lack of opportunity). It is relevant too, and worthy of further investigation, that while cultural factors – such as the widespread belief in East Asian culture that women should not be more successful than their husbands and should not stand out or be aggressive – did surface as significant, there was some disagreement as to just how significant these cultural factors really were.

But reports like this one are also of interest for UK universities as inter-cultural and global perspectives on women in higher education provide important food for comparative thought; in what ways and to what extent do women academics and higher education professionals face the same problems globally? What are the areas in which other contexts might serve as warnings to us? (For example, do leaders in the UK also over-emphasise the role of family and under-emphasise the role of gender bias in making sense of existing inequalities?). And are there yet other ways in which we might learn from other cultures?

Tackling gender inequality always requires a multi-pronged approach – capitalising on mass media interest, producing and acting on high-level research, and making active interventions both at local and systemic levels. One such intervention is the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme, a leadership programme, now in its fifth year, designed specifically for women. As well as being hugely helpful for participants, programmes like this help in turn to deepen understanding of the current realities as well as to bring to light areas for further research.

For example, results from the second year of the Aurora Longitudinal Study showed that many female academics and professionals feel that men taking on more domestic responsibility would gradually shift attitudes towards balancing work and family. An interesting avenue for further cross-cultural comparative research might therefore be to look to Sweden, where men and women generally share parental leave (parents only get all 480 days of available leave if one parent takes at least 60 of those days, thus encouraging fathers as well as mothers to take at least several months leave). How does this impact on gender imbalances in the workplace generally and in higher education contexts specifically?

More radically, one might even look at Sweden’s first ‘gender-neutral’ pre-school – where all mention of differences between the sexes (even in children’s books) are avoided, and where children are referred to using ‘hen’, a gender-neutral pronoun (‘hon’ is the Swedish for ‘she’, and ‘han’ is the Swedish for ‘he’) – as a way to reflect on how deeply gendered expectations are ingrained and what a world without such expectations might look like.

It sounds extreme, perhaps, but if 2017/18 has ushered in a new wave of interest in gender, race and inequality, universities are faced with a real opportunity to ride this wave, complementing it with research and practice that goes above and beyond tokenism and seeks to usher in deep and systemic change.

Dr Nicola Sayers is a former research manager at the Leadership Foundation. She is half-Swedish, half-British and has studied both in the UK and the US. Her recently completed doctorate explored the role of nostalgia in contemporary American literature and culture, but she also retains a strong interest in higher education research. She currently resides in Chicago.

Follow @LF4HE on Twitter and on International Women’s Day, March 8, join in with our #HeroinesinHE campaign to celebrate inspirational women in higher education.

LF Members can read the report: Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership? 

Is higher education a waste of time and money?

Students at a graduation ceremony

The generally-accepted view is that higher education is a sound investment for individuals and society. Bryan Caplan, an American economics professor, challenges this view. Using data on the US to underpin his analysis, the issues he raises are relevant to the UK. David Williams looks at the arguments set out in Caplan’s new book, “The Case Against Education” from a higher education perspective.

In his new book,“The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money” (Princeton University Press, 2018), Bryan Caplan argues that many students make the wrong decision in going onto higher-level study, and that society over-invests in education. He distinguishes the private (“selfish”) benefit of higher education, from its value to society.

The reasons why individuals invest in education is explained by signalling. Signalling contrasts with human capital theory which argues that investing in education leads to the accumulation of new knowledge and skills: the individual becomes more productive and is rewarded by higher earnings. Caplan rejects this view. Most of what students learn at college has limited (or no) value to an employer and fails to make them more productive. Most students take jobs which make little use of the knowledge they accumulate at university: “Academic success is a great way to get a good job, but a poor way to learn how to do a good job”.

Qualifications (credentials) signal not just intelligence, but individuals who are conscientious and conform. To secure their qualification a student will have shown resilience in completing their studies, and conformed to various social norms. Seeking new entrants to the workforce, employers select individuals with credentials that signal these characteristics. The root cause of signalling is imperfect information.
Students are engaged in an ‘arms race’. Higher qualifications differentiate students from their peers. The process is one of “credential inflation”. This does not generally lead to higher skills, but redistributes employment in favour of those with the highest credentials.

Caplan does not believe the skill requirements for most jobs have risen significantly in recent years; many workers have more education than they need and some are “overqualified” and under-employed: “The amount of education you need to get a job has risen more than the amount of education you need to do a job.”

Caplan accepts that neither “pure” human capital theory or “pure” signalling fully explains investment in higher education. His best estimate is that signalling accounts for 80% and human capital 20%. The main role of higher education is to certify the quality of labour, and individuals mostly benefit due to signalling.

The ‘sheepskin’ effect, so-called because diploma certificates were once printed on sheepskins, supports the argument for signalling. For a three-year degree it is not the cumulative build-up of knowledge and skills, which leads to a ‘graduate premium’, but completing the final year. What is important is crossing the academic finishing line and gaining the credential. The sheepskin effect applies to all levels of education. If a student drops-out, they are placed with the pool with lower credentials: “If you quit, the signalling model says the market will lump you with the loser and withhold the sheepskin’s reward.”

Completion rates (the ‘completion probability’) in the US are lower than in the UK. Many students would be better-off by not starting a degree. Examining the likelihood of a student dropping out of a course, Caplan selects four representative student categories: ‘Poor’, ‘Fair’, ‘Good’ and ‘Excellent’. Each reflects a level of cognitive ability and typical outcomes. For example, an ‘Excellent’ student is around the 82nd percentile of ability as shown by US General Social Survey (1972-2012) and fits the profile typical of a master’s degree holder. ‘Poor’ students are around the 24th percentile and typically high school drop outs. Academic success is never certain and strongly influenced by academic ability. Largely due to different completion rates, first degrees for Excellent and Good students are a “solid deal”, but the return on investment for Fair (2.3%) and Poor (1%) students is low.

All categories of students who complete a degree programme receive an education premium. However, Caplan argues the premium is not only due to higher education. Correcting for cognitive (30%) and non-cognitive (15%) ability bias reduces the premium enjoyed by graduates over high school graduates to 40%. Further, the actual premium received is influenced by the subject studied. Graduates gain the highest return where subjects map directly to vocational domains. Talking about “the” return on education is misleading; it also depends on what you study. Caplan suggests the intangible benefits of higher education for individuals are typically a small or there is reverse causation.

For public investment and policy, “given the power of signalling, the social case for education is dramatically weaker than the private case.” Societies over-invest in education. Students unlikely to benefit from higher education should be encouraged to enter vocational training.

Individuals should undertake a first degree if they meet the test of being a ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ student. Otherwise they are more likely to benefit from vocational education. Caplan suggests research indicates that ability reflects ‘nature’ rather than ‘nurture’ and that forcing some students down an academic pathway is not in their best interests. He argues his “numbers are the most comprehensive” (compared to other similar studies), although accepting some of his assumptions represent a “best guess”. By making his calculations available, Caplan invites others to check his numbers, and model alternative assumptions if they believe these are justified. While many will reject Caplan’s views or prescriptions, his analysis raises important questions. Given the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding in England, Caplan’s analysis is likely to be scrutinised closely.

David Williams is the editor of our governance pages

Take a look at our programme of events to support staff in governance. 

How to keep an eye on the truth

Picture: The Three Wise Monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim which in the West is often used to describe those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Picture: The Three Wise Monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim which in the West is often used to describe those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.

Recent news stories such as the #MeToo campaign to end sexual harassment in the workplace have highlighted the prevalence of institutional ‘wilful blindness’. This is when people choose to ignore when something negative is happening – even when it is common knowledge. Ahead of the Wilful Blindness Executive Masterclass, Vijaya Nath explains why learning to tackle institutional blindspots is vital to great leadership.

Great leadership requires the integrity to act on and live our values. As a leadership development practitioner and an experienced team leader, like many reading this, I know there are few new leadership secrets or ‘secret sauces’ left. Many leaders who I admire have the ability to act on their integrity, that is, give voice to their values. But this capacity and capability requires thinking space and practice.

One individual who has most enabled me to really reflect on my own practice is former CEO and TED speaker Margaret Heffernan. I’m looking forward to working with her at our upcoming Executive Masterclass on March 15 where she will share her extensive expertise on wilful blindness.

Among other hands-on activities we will be practising building our ‘ethical muscle memory’ which is one remedy for overcoming this important problem. Inspired by the work of Darden Professor Mary Gentile, we’ll explore and strengthen our ability as individuals to not only lead with integrity but act on and live those values we believe are critical to providing ‘just’ cultures in higher education. A culture in which staff and students flourish. Role-playing ethical dilemmas in this way helps us rehearse how to respond and go through appropriate processes.

Margaret’s work over many years has led her to the conclusion that while organisations may be ‘blind’ to their faults, people are not. As leaders, you know intimately what the issues are, so when you come to the masterclass, as well as having personal contact with Margaret, you’ll be able to work in real time on actionable interventions which you can use back in your institutions to change the culture.

Margaret and I share the belief that talk without action does little to bring positive change and this ethos underpins the design of this masterclass. We also know from our work with leaders at all levels that taking time out from the busy world is essential to enable thinking time, talking with leaders who are sharing similar challenges, practising helpful techniques and critically nourishing your leadership muscle strength!

We look forward to welcoming you on Thursday March 15.

Vijaya Nath is director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation. 

Find out more about the Wilful Blindness Executive Masterclass

The final masterclass of the series, Mindful Leadership is now booking. Find out more here.

Is your governing body biased?

Is cognitive bias and the use of heuristics responsible for poor decision-making in higher education? Do members of the governing body have unconscious biases? These are some of the issues explored by new research published by the Leadership Foundation.

The authors of the report The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences examine the question of “heuristics and biases in board decision-making”, which raises some interesting questions.

Major board decisions typically involve complexity, and governors making judgements reflecting uncertainty. Limitations of time and processing power typically mean humans use simple rules of thumb – heuristics – to help guide their judgements. These are often helpful, but can sometimes lead to severe biases. This risk, together with cognitive bias – influencing individual preferences – is the subject of this newly published report.

When making decisions governors are unlikely to be aware of their own biases, and how these influence their judgements. Aside from action to reduce unconscious bias on equality and diversity, the report suggests no work has been done to raise awareness of others biases likely to be present in higher education governance. As a result, poor decisions may have resulted.

The risk of bias is increased when there a dominant decision-maker(s), complacent or intransigent attitudes, and group think. All of these, the report suggests, are commonly found in higher education governance.

Compared to the governing body or senate (or academic board), the power of heads of institutions (“personalised leadership”) and executives has increased. There is typically an imbalance in the frequency by which governors support and challenge the executive, and some governing bodies are too compliant in accepting of the view of the executive. Equally, the “voice of senate” should be heard. Overall, in most institutions a growing “management culture” is seen to have reduced the checks on the power of the executive.

The governance system, revolving around the relationships between a governing body, the senate, and the executive are critical if institutional governance is to be effective. The system involves “shared governance”. Recent studies on academic governance found, in too many cases, senates and governing bodies didn’t fully understand each other’s role and responsibilities. This is potentially a critical weakness. Faced with a more disruptive operating environment, resulting in increased risk and the need for faster decision-making, this raises the question of how the system of governance should evolve in the future?

Removing all biases to decision-making is difficult (and maybe impossible). The situation will be made worse if there is group think. Would changing the composition of the governing body address this issue? Is there a need to recruit from a more diverse base (in the widest sense) to enrich the membership of governing bodies beyond those groups who have traditionally been represented?

Similarly, as the boundaries between academic and corporate governance blur how does this affect the membership of the governing body? In addition to governors bringing intelligence, good judgement and commitment, is domain knowledge of higher education important? Does the Board need members, independent of the executive, with a background in higher education? If so, what proportion of governors should have higher education expertise, and what expertise? Do you need someone with expertise in, say, higher education policy or quality assurance or university management or administration?

What other issues require attention? Few would argue with the idea of providing sufficient time and (relevant!) information to allow governors to make informed decisions. But how easy is this in practice given the number of times governing bodies typically meet, and the size of most agendas when they do? Is a fundamental rethink to the model of governance required?

The idea that governing bodies should review past decisions, focusing not just on the decision made, but on the process, is to be promoted. This would establish a feedback-loop, enabling the governing body to reflect on the decision-making process and decisions made. However, a “full public disclosure” of the effectiveness reviews of governing bodies is likely to produce documents placed in the public domain that say very little.

Having raised the issue about the quality of Board decision-making, the authors of the report acknowledge that there is the need for more detailed research on how governing bodies make their decisions. Given a lack of sound and recent field research on the topic, this is arguably pressing. Not least there is a risk that cases of poor governance are highlighted in the media, while the many cases of effective governance remain hidden. Perhaps now is the time for the sector to undertake the necessary research and produce evidence to counter hear-say and ill-informed statements? If this happens, the authors of the current report will have served the sector well.

David Williams edits the governance section of the Leadership Foundation’s website. News alerts and notices of forthcoming events for governors and professional staff working in governance are regularly posted on the website. The website also contains an information repository, offering a range of resources to governors and those who support their work.

The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences is one of our Small Development Projects. Access the report hereThe 2018 Small Development Projects will be announced shortly. For more on all the Leadership Foundation’s Small Development Projects visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/SDP

For more information on our governance work visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance 

If it’s not working…

In the second of our series of posts for our spring 2018 Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat for higher education leaders and governors, Roger Kline author of The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS and former joint director of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard, compares and contrasts approaches to race policy between higher education and NHS.

Eighteen years ago, the Macpherson Report explored institutional racism in the Metropolitan police with implications for UK public services. Research from the time showed that in higher education, black and minority ethnic (BME) staff were disadvantaged in terms of recruitment, employment status and career progression  while BME students were more likely to be found in new universities, were more likely to drop out, were less likely to be awarded good honours degrees and less likely to do well in the labour market.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act (2000) set out specific duties for universities on both widening participation strategies for students and strengthened equal opportunities for staff. Despite the initiatives this prompted, progress for both BME staff and students (and in senior governance across the sector) has remained glacial. The NHS faces similar challenges. It had not applied to itself the rigour it expects when analysing clinical challenges. There had been no serious evaluation of existing strategies, and a flawed approach to improvement, underpinned by denial of the scale of discrimination.

There is no shortage of evidence about what does and doesn’t work in workforce equality. The Audit Commission (2004) set out a framework of “what works”, our own literature search (2015) came to similar conclusions and informed a three-pronged approach to NHS workforce discrimination:

  1. Reducing workforce race inequality became part of the national NHS commissioning contract making it mandatory for NHS providers (including private sector ones) to demonstrate they are starting to close the gap between the treatment and experience of White and BME staff as captured by nine indicators.
  2. Such progress (or lack of it) became part of the Care Quality Commission regulatory inspection framework, specifically a significant part of the evidence as to whether NHS providers were “well led” or not.
  3. The data is all published, and benchmarked.

The focus was on measurable outcomes not just on improved processes, and the details of such progress (or otherwise), are published every year. In 2016 we then drew from both the literature and best practice across the public and private sectors the “shared characteristics of effective interventions”. We noted how NHS funding sanctions (and incentives) linked to measurable Athena SWAN progress became an effective means of challenging gender discrimination in STEM subjects in higher education.

We noted six key characteristics, as applicable to higher education as they have been to the NHS:

  1. Acknowledge and name the problem. In the NHS, avoidance and denial became no more acceptable in equality than in other NHS challenges such as infection control or mortality rates. In higher education, the post MacPherson Hefce funding letters were not explicit about race or ethnicity and the performance indicators used related to social class as a proxy instead. As early as 2005 Hefce reported that the initiatives ‘appear to have had the greatest impact on the role and reward of women in the majority of institutions’ and as a result ‘the role of minority ethnic groups.. has received much less emphasis…compared to the emphasis on gender equality’.
  2. Insist on detailed scrutiny of workforce and staff survey data to identify the specific challenges that NHS Trusts as a whole, or individual departments or services or occupations may have on race equality. Don’t hide from uncomfortable facts. Crucially, listen and act on what BME staff and students say.
  3. See workforce equality as integral to service improvement not just to compliance – as part of providing better services and improving staff well-being, not as a separate discrete task. The Leadership Foundation and the Equality Challenge Unit are working to demonstrate the links between treating BME staff well and the benefits to students and the organisation, not just the BME staff. We learnt it is essential to have a powerful evidenced narrative that explains how discriminatory recruitment, development and appointment systems, for example, waste talent and impact adversely on service provision whether it be patient care (or on the teaching and support of BME students, the talent pool for research, and the effectiveness of the university).
  4. Learn from previous failed approaches to workforce equality which relied excessively on policies, procedures and diversity training (including unconscious bias training). The literature demonstrates such approaches (as in tackling wider cultural challenges) will not work in isolation and excessively rely on individual members of staff being brave or foolish enough to raise concerns, complaints or grievances about discrimination. Senior institutional leadership must take prime responsibility, for example, for talent management and career development and be proactive in developing staff and challenging discrimination, in a radical break with the culture of allowing departments to recruit, often developing and promoting “people like us” or those who might “best fit in”. 
  5. Strategies and specific interventions must be evidence driven and be able to answer the question “why do you think this will work?”
  6. Above all, accountability is crucial. Unless leaders model the behaviours expected of others, face uncomfortable truths, are held to account and hold others to account, insisting on evidenced interventions with locally developed targets, even the best intentions will not bring about change.

This approach has shown some early and significant progress. For example, some 2000 additional BME nurses and midwives appear to have gained more senior positions in 2014-2017 whilst the relative likelihood of BME staff being disciplined has started falling.

Despite the best efforts of the Leadership Foundation, Equality Challenge Unit and others in higher education institutions I sense similar challenges to those the NHS faces. The Civil Service have recently adopted a completely new strategy using similar principles. The Leadership Foundation’s Retreat (for senior executives and governors in universities) in April might usefully consider whether the time has come to consider adopting similar principles, including whether Hefce funding should be linked to HEIs demonstrating measurable improvement year-on-year in the treatment and experience of both staff and students from BME backgrounds compared to that of White staff and students. Ministers are supporting that approach in the NHS and the civil service. Why not in higher education?

Roger Kline is the author of The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS and was joint director of the NHS Workforce Race Equality Standard for its first two years (2015-2017). He is Research Fellow at Middlesex University Business School.

Read the first blog in this series, Diversity – are universities sincerely up for change? by Simon Fanshawe, Leadership Foundation associate and partner at Diversity by Design.