Charting a route to the higher ground

Illustration of a diverse group of workers

In the third of a series of blogs ahead of our second equality, diversity and inclusion retreat, Vijaya Nath, associate at Advance HE, shares her thoughts on strategies that will challenge senior leaders and governors to rethink approaches to diversifying their workforce.

In 2016 I contributed an essay to a King’s Fund series called ‘The NHS If‘. In it I wrote: “The late American publisher and entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes succinctly captured one of the most powerful benefits of a diverse workforce and leadership when he described diversity as ‘the art of thinking independently together’. Imagine the potential of a greater range of ideas generated by a greater range of diversity.”

In the last eighteen months that I have been working in higher education I have witnessed great achievement, but I know the sector would be even greater if it could truly harness the thinking and leadership potential of all of its constituents. The paucity of diverse leadership in the decision-making bodies leading HEIs demonstrates the scale of the issue.

The foundations of Western philosophy and thought are often attributed to the teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These great thinkers saw education as a means to achieving justice at an individual and societal level. How would they view the issues facing BAME academic and professional service staff in the UK’s higher education sector in 2018?

Most of those leading universities accept the well-rehearsed moral arguments that have been amplified in the last couple of years. Additionally, the compelling business reasons and better outcomes that harnessing diversity of thought would deliver requires those in leadership roles to give this issue a higher priority than hitherto assigned. But when will we move from rhetoric to action?

As I think of our upcoming retreat for senior leaders and governors in universities the end in mind is to enable considered action as opposed to ruminating over the real and perceived challenges of tackling bias and discrimination. The need for action is particularly acute in higher education, as these are institutions whose primary mission is to promote learning. A setting, that is, which educates world leaders and claims to hold the ‘higher ground’ should be a better role model.

The student population (without whom many of our universities would cease to exist) is the most diverse it has ever been in higher education in the UK, but this is not reflected in university leadership. My colleagues Simon Fanshawe and Roger Kline have outlined several barriers to BAME leaders progressing in universities and I would like to add another.

The most pressing factor, in my opinion (which I have witnessed first-hand as I moved from health to higher education in 2015) is culture, that is to say what we permit as leaders in the sector. When university leadership, their regulators and arms-length bodies representing different facets of higher education bear little resemblance to those they serve, it is indeed time to move to action.

Otherwise, the reputational risk and lack of trust in our university leadership will do little to make us the educators of choice as we move beyond Brexit and hope to become truly the most globally competitive higher education sector.

At the April 2018 Equality Diversity and Inclusion Immersion Retreat we will engage with the question of what works, by looking at a number of sectors which have been asked the same questions when it comes to delivering parity of esteem for BAME staff. Those attending the retreat will have the space to explore how strategies can be turned into actions and, most importantly, how these can be evolved locally, taking into account where an institution is on its journey to realising the potential of all of its constituents – academic and non-academic – in 2018.

We will be able to share with those attending the retreat early findings from a project being led by Professor Jan Fook, aimed at understanding the contributions that BAME academics and professional services staff make, and share in their own words what factors these staff feel have helped them achieve their potential. In addition we will be able to share a number of techniques for building a coalition of the willing, helping senior leaders to work with leaders at all levels in their institution to co-create a culture in which all have the ability to achieve their potential.

This will also involve supporting those leading the sector, who have made commitments to raise this issue as a priority in 2018 and to tackle the deep cultural challenges their institutions face to achieving progress. This time in 2019 we will be able to look back on a year where we pressed for action and tapped into all of the talent available; a year in which we made progress towards achieving inclusive cultures which more accurately represent the student populations that HEIs serve.

Those leading universities talk about achieving a vision where staff and students flourish and achieve their potential irrespective of their ethnicity. We believe this retreat will provide a challenging and supportive space to enable participants to make the changes worthy of a sector that not only nominally but truly inhabits the Higher Ground.

Vijaya Nath will be leading this Spring’s Equality, Diversity and Immersion Retreat on April 23-24 along with Simon Fanshawe former chair of the University of Sussex, and Roger Kline, research fellow at Middlesex University. 

Find out more about the event. Read the previous two blogs in this series: Simon Fanshawe asks, Diversity: are universities sincerely up for change? Roger Kline: If it’s not working…

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