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. 

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