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‘Education has the power to transform the lives of those from all disadvantaged communities – not just those with protected characteristics’

15 Mar 2023 | Advance HE Dr Shaid Mahmood, Pro-Vice Chancellor for EDI at Durham University, opens the first day of Advance HE’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2023 in Hull.

In a keynote speech to Advance HE’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Conference 2023, Dr Shaid Mahmood, Pro-Vice Chancellor for EDI at Durham University, called on the sector to redouble its efforts with all left-behind communities – including those that are largely white.

Dr Mahmood said:

“Equality, diversity and inclusion, if it’s about anything, it’s about human rights and we should rightly celebrate the lives of many individuals that have contributed to where we are in this field in the UK today.

From …

  • Magna Carta in 1215 through to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
  • The European Convention on Human Rights in 1950
  • The Race Relations Act in 1965
  • The 1966 UK sign up to the European Court of Human Rights
  • In 1975 the sex discrimination act was landed, followed by
  • A further race relations act in 1976
  • A disability discrimination act in 1995, and
  • A human rights act in 1998 and, of course,
  • The Equality Act in 2010 which brought together 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single act.

These moments in history are the culmination of the individual contributions – directly or indirectly – of all the people that have worked to establish civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and on and on it goes.

These are the real Giants of our work.

Standing on the shoulders of Giants

We are all here, because of the sacrifices of the Giants that came before us that worked on all of these landmarks in our history.

Higher education has three main purposes according to Miguel Angel Escotet:

  • freedom and democracy
  • knowledge and innovation, and
  • for the benefit of humankind and the environment.

Being able to think critically is immensely important especially now when we are bombarded with information from spurious sources all over social media with dubious conclusions and arriving at lightning pace into our mobile devices where, in reality, most of us just read the headlines.

These three purposes (of education) are important features of an educational system that provides for citizens that act to identify and tackle the major national problems and resolve the big questions which affect and concern the world.

As a country, we face serious challenges. Productivity is poor in comparison to other countries. Investment in learning, skills and training is lacking and that is at least part of the reason why our productivity remains low, slowing our economic growth.

Students today are graduating at a time when the whole world appears to be going in different directions - international conflict, domestic political strife, cost of living crisis, falling productivity and increasing poverty and inequality.

Social mobility

Education plays a huge role in social mobility by providing equity, making the most of our diversity and creating a climate of inclusion. But I wanted to offer an additional perspective of what I still feel through my experience of the work that I’ve done in communities - education and counter-extremism remains a significant challenge – and that is the outcome for students in left-behind communities.

A 2022 review from the Institute of Fiscal Studies said that rapid improvements in educational outcomes for many students from minority ethnic groups are one of the most striking educational trends in recent years. In England, GCSE attainment [awarding] improved particularly rapidly for Bangladesh, Pakistani and Black African students in the past two decades with Bangladeshi students going from a nine percentage point attainment [awarding] gap compared with white British students in 2004, to a six-point advantage in 2019.

Students from almost all minority ethnic groups are more likely to attend university than their British while counterparts. However, significant attainment [awarding] gaps do exist for those minority ethnic students once they are at university and I would not wish to minimise the challenge.

In our sector, we recognise ethnic imbalances and we make deliberate attempts to solve them by addressing prejudice and supporting more equitable representation. However, far too many impoverished white students are leaving school without the necessary qualifications, and something must be done to re-engage these students in their education.

Too many of these students do not have access to high-quality, unbiased career counselling and assistance - missing out on the opportunity to be more aware of all their alternatives and to pursue a variety of jobs. A white family’s bad educational experience, living in underprivileged neighbourhoods for decades, under investment in local economies, a lack of community organisation and youth clubs and a school curriculum that simply does not capture the interest of those students will all play a significant role.

For far too many of these pupils, the funnel to higher education narrows on leaving school. The result of accumulated educational disadvantage that starts in their formative years and persists through primary and high school education.

The yardstick for measuring the progress of disadvantaged white communities used to be white middle-class pupils. Now that yardstick is ethnic minority communities. White working class people have been let down over so many years with policy-making being just all over the place.

I don’t believe that it’s down to being poor alone – disadvantage and class are complex. The causes are about so much more than just income. They can be about access to resources and opportunities too. That’s why we see so many left behind communities outside our big cities and why educational disadvantage is not limited to students with protected characteristics. What I do know having been involved in schools, further education and higher education now over some 25 years, is that unlike any other sector the education sector transforms the lives of people from those disadvantaged communities.

As, we must ask, is it time to redouble our efforts with all left behind communities, not forgetting the communities that are largely white?

Educational ecosystem

How do we work as an educational ecosystem rather than just higher education? Have you personally reached out to your counterparts in further education to create a coalition of the willing in the EDI space?

We have a reach and penetration through the work we do as system leaders to bring together a local learning coalition in our places. System leaders work across their internal boundaries and across to other organisations in their places – and not just education – building coalitions, developing relationships, improving capability and capacity, being open to challenge and new ideas. We need more people with system leadership skills if we are not to lose ground on the progress we have been making. We don’t need to look to national government, we just need to look to ourselves.

We have made huge strides in the field of EDI already but there is much more still to do and how we do that in the present and the future is going to be the difference between success and failure. The difference between making progress and standing still or indeed going backwards. Should we ask ourselves whether as professionals in this space, we see ourselves as leaders of cultural change as well as EDI professionals? Do we see enough of the business imperative for EDI, not just the moral and social imperative? Do we lose people with the complexity of the language we use?

And what about more inclusive leadership? In my experience, diversity in any team provides for improvements in performance. What gets you the truly superior performance is having leadership that can harness the talents, direct the energy, and make the most of them. That’s much harder and I see much capability in this space!

We are at a watershed moment in time. How we go about doing what we do is going to be key, and we need to invoke the rebelliousness of the Giants who have gone before us. We can move mountains if we want to!”

Equality Diversity and Inclusion Colloquia

We are looking for contributions to our upcoming EDI Colloquium: Pedagogies of Liberation on themes of engaged pedagogy, building a teaching community and the promise of change. Find out more.

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