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‘Holistic approach to EDI’ Project update – June 2024

28 Jun 2024 | Dr Ruth Gilligan Dr Ruth Gilligan, Assistant Director for UK Equality Charters, provides an update on the progress Advance HE is making in developing and testing a ‘holistic approach to EDI’.

The 'Holistic Approach to EDI' project is one of the most strategically significant areas of Advance HE’s current work, aimed at supporting the sector’s ambitions for scalable, sustainable, efficient and impactful EDI practice. For more information on the project and its background, please visit our project page.

In-depth engagement  

Over the past few months, we have engaged in the evidence-gathering part of this phase of work. We conducted a series of virtual meetings with 29 member institutions to explore and collate details on structures, current practices, and challenges in developing a holistic approach to EDI. These discussions, totalling more than 70 hours and involving over 120 stakeholders, provided invaluable insights. We are immensely grateful to all the colleagues who generously shared their time and expertise—thank you! 

Participants discussed the need for a holistic approach that supports coordinated prioritisation and decision making on across institutional, departmental, and individual engagement on EDI. Achieving this integration currently poses a challenge for many institutions, with activity split across disconnected teams: 

“The biggest win would be a consistent and co-ordinated approach to staff and student EDI activities.” 

Hearing from our global network 

In addition to the case study meetings and interviews, we held five roundtable discussions in March and April 2024 to explore emerging themes from the Discovery Phase. Over 60 individuals from institutions in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand attended these discussions, providing a platform to share early project findings and hear diverse perspectives on adopting a joined-up approach to EDI work. 

The roundtable discussions confirmed broad agreement with the emerging findings from our evidence-gathering exercise with UK institutions. International colleagues expressed similar concerns and priorities, such as the benefits of greater strategic and intersectional focus, recognising the imperative of greater efficiency as well as the potential risks of focusing solely on financial drivers. There is a shared worry that EDI activities are often the first to face cuts, which has the potential to jeopardise the important change these activities are trying to achieve. Colleagues emphasised that efforts to support more diverse staff and student populations can bring about significant long-term positive impacts on an organisation’s finances and performance. 

These discussions also highlighted contrasts in contexts for our international members and partners. For instance, approximately 47% of Australian universities have more than 30,000 students, compared to about 7% of UK universities of that size. Australian colleagues discussed the challenges of working at this scale and maintaining consistent EDI approaches across multiple large, often remote campuses. Meanwhile, Canadian colleagues mentioned the difficulty of working within a sector with little national infrastructure to support EDI activity, noting that senior leadership roles in EDI are relatively new. 

We also explored experiences of working across multiple EDI strands, leading to important reflections for our development about longitudinal planning and organisational accountability: 

“It’s good to have agility across EDI areas and to prioritise effective projects based on need, but there’s a need to think about how to maintain the progress in those areas after the project is complete.” 

Emerging principles for future work 

It is clear from our engagement that colleagues value the external support and validation gained through the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters and many voiced a desire for an institutional framework to help them work holistically in a similar way. While there is no single shared vision for how a potential framework should be structured, we have begun to identify and explore potential properties: 

  • Lifecycle Focus: Analysis would be focused through stages of the staff and student ‘lifecycle’ (e.g., recruitment, career development, progression; admissions, awarding, progression) rather than through the lenses of characteristics 
  • Prioritisation: Institutions would use the framework to identify areas to prioritise action and transparently work within resource constraints to identify where action is not prioritised 
  • Greater alignment: The organisational framework would enable institutions to see intersectional links and synergy between different initiatives, and enable more joined up, efficient working across projects 
  • Structured Support: Departments and directorates would progress local action and innovation in a structured way contributing to an institutional framework, rather than each adopting the same framework independently.  

Recognising the varied needs of the sector, a framework alone will not be sufficient. As such, we are considering a suite of support options, including: 

  • Toolkits, checklists and guidance – e.g., on undertaking equality impact assessments 
  • Networking and sharing effective practice – e.g., on supporting activity relating to class / socioeconomic status for staff 
  • Consultancy options – e.g., providing in-depth and bespoke support to teams undertaking data analysis and prioritisation. 

What’s next, and how you can get involved 

Informed by rich discussions with UK and international colleagues, we know the need for effective and coordinated EDI approaches is great, and the task ahead of us is not insignificant. Advance HE’s strategic committees, such as our Athena Swan and Race Equality Charter Governance Committees, EDI Committee and Advance HE Board are providing expert guidance as we refine our approach. 

We are diligently analysing the evidence gathered from case studies and interviews, and we aim to roll out standalone supports and test framework elements with the sector early in the next academic year.   

Would you like to participate?

If you would like to participate in our testing phase, you can register your interest now.

Once registered, we will be in touch at the end of the summer with further information. Our aim is to develop different models and components of a ‘holistic approach’ to test with members from October 2024.

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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