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…

How I got onto a board

Jenny Ames worked in academia for 35 years across eight universities. Keen to join a board she attended a Women onto Boards event in 2017 and was appointed board member of Aneurin Leisure in July 2017. Here she reflects on her personal journey to board member.  

Becoming a board member is something that I started to seriously consider around 10 years ago, but the seeds were sown much earlier at the beginning of my career.

My background is in food chemistry research, as an applied subject this meant much of my research involved collaborating with industry. For example my first postdoctoral contract was funded by an American multi-national and following that as a head of my research group, most of my grants involved at least one external company. I enjoyed working with people from the private sector, learning how their companies operated and seeing my expertise being applied to address the challenges they faced. They valued my knowledge and ability to manage my research team and deliver projects on time. I got a sense of achievement.

Get a mentor or coach who is right for you

When I started my academic career in the early 1980s, there was no Leadership Foundation and, at least in my university, no culture of formal mentoring or coaching. From 2005-2017 I lived away from the family home in the week and progressed my career at four universities in different parts of the UK. It became important to me to be part of the community where I worked. I had also reached the stage where I had a wealth of experience that others could benefit from, including mentoring however, it was only in my last 10 years in academia that I myself benefited from various mentors and coaches to whom I will always be grateful.

The most valuable experience I had was with a professional coach and it was she who encouraged me to work towards a board role. The advice was three-fold: find someone who has such a role and ask to shadow them, go on a course so you understand more about what it involves, and join the Institute of Directors (IoD). I didn’t get around to shadowing someone but I did join the IoD.

Learn the basics

Importantly, my faculty supported me to attend an intensive two-day programme, The Effective Non-Executive Director, run by the Financial Times. This covered the soft skills and the hard skills required of a successful non-executive director (NED). This course gave me the tools I needed and it included a session with a NED head hunter. She advised that for someone who hadn’t been on a board before (like me), a good place to start was as a school governor or a trustee of a charity. Another attendee suggested joining Women on Boards to find possible roles. I also engaged with Reach Volunteering and I registered on the SGOSS Governors for Schools website.

Understand the value of the skills you do have and know your own values

It was the SGOSS site where I found an advert for a school governor about 10 miles from my flat. I applied, met with the head teacher and chair and deputy chair of the Board of Governors and was appointed.

I have a separate CV and covering letter template for board roles. The focus is hard skills like budgeting, health and safety, and governance. Soft skills include committee chairing and mentoring. I do not have any children, and so had no experience or knowledge of the current school system, but working at a local university was attractive to the school along with my experience of, for example, managing budgets and chairing large, formal meetings (although all in a research context). It was also important to be able to demonstrate that my values about enabling people to reach their potential aligned with their own.

This role got me off the starting blocks and I was very fortunate to find myself in an excellently run school. I learnt a lot about school education and was able to contribute to the finance and resource sub-committee. I left after a year as I was moving to another university.

Use your network

Early in 2017 I attended one of the Leadership Foundation Women onto Boards events aimed at encouraging more women to apply for a board position. Having given up the school governor role and done nothing since I decided to look for a new position. One point made at the event was that men often get a board position by asking someone in their network for help. Having a large and diverse network, I decided to take this approach. I had recently met someone at a regional IoD meeting and was due to follow up with him. When I asked for advice about a board role, he mentioned that something was coming up that might suit me. He put me in touch with the organisation so I could find out more. Shortly afterwards the job was advertised nationally and I applied. I was interviewed in June and appointed in July 2017 as a member of the board of trustees at Aneurin Leisure in South Wales.  It is early days and I plan to spend a day with the trust to help me to better understand how I can contribute.

A final word

It is important to join an organisation that you feel passionate about. One whose values align with your own. You are contributing your time and skills, usually for free. If you and the organisation are well aligned, you will both be amply rewarded.


Women onto Boards
For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage.

Governor Development
Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

Our Equality and Diversity Programmes
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is committed to addressing the lack of representation in senior executive leadership positions of both women and people from BME backgrounds. You can find out more here.

About Jenny
Jenny Ames had a 35 year academic career across eight universities before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She works with universities, businesses and their stakeholders to develop strategy and talent and initiate and nurture cross sector collaborations. Jenny is now a member of the board at Aneurin Leisure and an Aurora role model.