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‘Holistic approach to EDI’ – project update

13 Dec 2023 | Dr Ruth Gilligan Dr Ruth Gilligan, Assistant Director for UK Equality Charters, provides an update on Advance HE’s ‘holistic approach to EDI’ project which is entering a Discovery Phase

Advance HE has committed to exploring how we can support our members to adopt a holistic approach to their equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work, spanning across and moving beyond protected characteristics. This project builds on the previous feedback and the expressed appetite of the sector, and its outcomes have the potential to impact on EDI practice across the UK and globally. As we undertake this work, one of our core aims is to keep our members informed of our progress and build opportunities for shared learning and co-creation.

Identifying solutions to a complex problem while our previous work highlighted a clear appetite for implementing holistic approaches, we found that examples of a holistic approach in practice are currently limited: our call for evidence of good practice received no submissions. The lack of practical examples is hardly surprising when you consider the complexity of the contexts within which members are working. In the UK, institutions have a duty to tackle discrimination and advance equality across nine protected characteristics and have additional commitments to a range of other equality-related priorities, such as widening participation. With different regulatory frameworks, duties and drivers, activities relating to individual strands of equality have naturally become fragmented and, in some cases, siloed. In this context, it is understandable why members desire a more joined-up approach that supports them to use their resources wisely and ensure their interventions are as impactful as possible.

So how can we untangle some of the complexity and move toward a solution? We are commencing a Discovery Phase to explore how members can be supported in taking a more holistic approach to EDI, to understand existing EDI structures and related practice, and to understand and identify potential mitigations against current challenges and concerns.

This phase will result in a detailed understanding of institutional infrastructures in relation to EDI and related areas, covering leadership and operational accountabilities, practice and policy, whether student or staff facing. Our findings will be used to develop a proposal of next steps to pilot with the sector.

Discovery Phase structure

We are now beginning the Discovery Phase – we have reached out to members, hoping to gather intelligence and insights through detailed and comprehensive meetings with a representative group of member institutions. We plan to build further on those insights through sector dialogue at workshops and roundtables; and to underpin all of our work with broader communications (like this blog) which keep all of our members engaged and up to date with the project. As we move forward, we will synthesise the information and insights that we have gathered through that first strand and analyse the findings. This process will be followed by collaborative testing with key members of the sector, including Advance HE’s committees and steering groups, leading us to the development of one or, more likely, multiple models. These models will serve as the blueprint for our pilot stage, propelling us into the practical application of our insights.

project plan

Gathering insights

The main mechanism for this phase of the project will be the exploration of ‘case studies’ through a series of virtual meetings with 15 – 20 member institutions to explore and collate detail on structures, current practice and challenges in relation to developing a holistic approach to EDI. To complement and expand on the in-depth understanding gathered through case studies, 10 – 15 targeted interviews will be undertaken with other institutions. This will enable Advance HE to develop a broad understanding of the sector’s strengths and needs and will inform the development of specific supports to pilot with members.

Inclusive Engagement

To ensure that we understand the wide variety of contexts experienced by our member institutions and so that any solutions developed as a result are effective across the sector, we have identified a representative group of UK institutions to participate in the first stage of the discovery phase. Our selection criteria encompassed considerations of size, geographical location, mission group, and their engagement or non-engagement with our Equality Charters. We aim to ensure geographically balanced representation, leaving no region of the UK feeling overlooked. Similarly, our approach extends to achieving a fully balanced participant group across various other factors, ensuring a comprehensive and equitable representation as we embark on this collaborative journey toward positive change. We will shortly expand this approach to engage with colleges, research institutes and international members. Thank you to everyone who has agreed to take part in the project, and everyone who has reached out to express interest. While we will not be able to accommodate everyone within the case studies and interviews, we hope to engage all who are interested through our communications and events.

Everything, everywhere, all at once – where to start?

As highlighted above, the context is complex, and our previous work and consultation illustrated the lack of clarity and agreement across the sector on what a ‘holistic approach’ means. This is something that we are setting out to establish as part of the Discovery Phase. As a ‘starter for ten,’ we suggest that a holistic approach is one which supports an institution to: 

  • Develop a single, whole-organisation, strategic approach to EDI- and access-related institutional priorities and activity.
  • Understand the representation, experiences and outcomes for particular groups based on the full range of legally protected characteristics and other characteristics, supporting institutions to set contextualised institutional priorities. 
  • Determine evidence-based actions to address identified issues across and beyond the full range these groups.
  • Apply insights from one area of activity to others, to translate good practice and maximise impact.
  • Join-up the design and delivery of activity where possible so that efforts are not duplicated, and the resource need is minimised (e.g. common approaches that benefit a broader proportion of the institution).
  • Ensure a proportionate focus and transparent alignment between activities where there is a requirement to be more targeted (e.g. on one particular group), so that the management and oversight of that activity is accounted for within the institution’s broader strategy.

As we progress with the Discovery Phase, we are particularly interested in understanding what institutions would want a holistic approach to help them achieve. Are there any other (non-legally protected) characteristics or areas that members would want to include if taking a holistic approach? How should departmental or faculty-level engagement and activity be supported? How should a holistic approach consider both staff and students at the institutional level? We hope to find the answers to these questions through our collaboration with the sector.

Collaborative Input

We will hold several roundtable discussions in March 2024 to explore emerging themes from the Discovery Phase. These will provide an opportunity for members to hear from other institutions across the sector and globally, consider some of the early project findings and input into our analysis and development. Details and booking links for these roundtables can be found below:

What’s next?

Over the coming months, we will begin gathering insights through the case studies and interviews and will continue to keep you updated through our broader communications plan. Thanks again to everyone who has informed the project over the past year, agreed to take part in the discovery phase and to everyone who has expressed an interest in this work. This project is a truly collaborative exercise – initiated by our members expressing a desire to work differently, informed by sector consultation, and, over the course of this academic year, seeking to co-create and develop future solutions together. I look forward with interest to working with you!

Read our updates and access previous reports on this project here.

Advance HE members can register for a roundtable to discuss emerging findings from the Discovery Phase:

  • Roundtable 1: 21 March 2024, 13:30 – 15:00 GMT; Register here
  • Roundtable 2: 26 March 2024, 08:00 – 09:30 GMT; Register here
  • Roundtable 3: 27 March 2024, 15:00 – 16:30 GMT; Register here

Interested in any of the areas mentioned in this blog? You can continue the conversation on Advance HE Connect to share your insights and experiences. 

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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