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Inclusive Institutions - a variation on keynote listening

25 Mar 2022 | Cindy Vallance Following the annual Advance HE EDI Conference - Inclusive Institutions in Action, Cindy Vallance, Assistant Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, shares highlights from the conference.

The Advance HE EDI conference featured a rich mix of activity with each day launched by a keynote address, followed by a host of presentations and workshops, poster sessions and a final panel discussion. There was, as always at these events, a true generosity of sharing of challenges and good practices across institutions, subject areas and communities, and a genuine excitement about the opportunity to come together face-to-face. I was asked to provide summary thoughts as ‘keynote listener.’

During the first keynote, as I was busily writing notes for this session, I noticed that I was sitting next to a delegate who sketched visual images throughout the session. As a one-time arts student myself, I was curious and asked her afterwards about her work. She shared that she was a lecturer in illustration and mentioned that she had a poster in the Exhibition Hall.

I realised that my focus on being the keynote listener for the keynotes and panels was, in fact, in itself, privileging the voices of some over others. So, a small change of plan. Instead of the keynotes and panels, I will share few thoughts here on some of the fantastic selection of posters featured at the conference, which I was able to view on the second day.

Firstly, a huge thank you to all of the poster contributors. I’m certain none of us under-estimate the huge amount of effort to put these together. It can be a bigger challenge to say less than to say more and I hope everyone had the opportunity to view these at the conference. What themes emerged from these?

How co-production and delivery of EDI teaching by students can improve engagement and agency, Dr Kate Williams, University of Leicester 

Leicester Medical School focused on how EDI can improve engagement and agency of students during induction. They noted that barriers included the risk of over-reliance on a few enthusiastic students and the never-ending challenge of finding time for important, seemingly less urgent, deadline driven work. Conversely, facilitators of engagement include working within a framework, understanding that all levels of participation are welcomed no matter how small or how large, the importance of senior support, and the need to recognise and reward the efforts of students.

How language can influence change: Lessons learnt at Swansea University Medical School, Dr Anna Seager, Swansea University  

Swansea University Medical School provided reflections on the power of language to influence change by engaging people’s values and by using a strategic communications model. Their work highlighted the dangers of a deficit model and one-way communications which can come across as patronising, having an awareness of perceptions and challenges around terms including overuse of the term ‘culture change’ which can quickly become meaningless jargon, addressing the myth of meritocracy and the belief of fatalism – that we are all powerless to change a situation, which can lead to anxiety and action paralysis. Talk of structural inequality can be balanced with approaches that provide agency and suggest solutions and that support the identification of positive impact and progress towards change. 

We've heard you - now let's listen: A listening rooms analysis of the experiences of Black and ethnically minoritised students, Reem ElKosseer, University of Leeds

Leeds University Business School featured their student listening rooms by addressing the challenges of navigating institutional support and identity politics with a focus on the experiences of black and ethnically minoritised students. They provided recommendations that supported the need for collaboration by the entire university community to engage directly with students in ways that enable them to be their authentic selves. 

An intervention-led approach to inclusive technical workforces in UK higher education and research, Mi-Talent

Mi-Talent’s intervention led approach to inclusive technical workforces focused on the critical value of the HE sector’s technical community, providing EDI demographics across the workforce and describing projects that focused on practical tools to support the recruitment of a more diverse workforce, as well as a programme to support women in technical leadership. 

Drawing is contagious, Kimberly Hall, University of Gloucestershire, Lucy Williams, University of Nottingham

The University of Gloucestershire and University of Nottingham's illustration contained the heading ‘drawing is contagious.’ This visual encouraged us to explore time and place through fantastical imagery of symbols, mythical creatures and sailing ships. Contained in the centre of the image was knowledge which is so key to everything we do in higher education. 

I would also like to replicate here the ideas and thoughts I did share in closing the conference from Kalifa Cuben, one of the three student listeners who attended. Each of these students will also share their own words directly as part of our post-conference blogs in collaboration with my Advance HE colleague, Dave Thomas. So – what reflections did Kalifa have during our conversation?

  • Sharing our lived experience is powerful and welcome, although it is important that each of us be mindful to not try and represent the experiences of any community we are not part of; proximity to someone else’s lived experience does not make it yours.

  • Power dynamics are always present and all voices are not equal – our heightened consciousness supports the building of trust.

  • Knowing our audience can help us to identify the language that’s most appropriate to the context; first listen to understand.

Kalifa also shared her own vision for creating fair and equitable experiences as she completes her studies and determines what’s next; we talked about the importance of hope and the belief that we can build a better future by working together.

Finally, in the last few moments of our formal time together at the EDI conference, I suggested a call to action for each of us in advancing and being an activist for EDI. Something that we can all consider whether we were in attendance at the conference or not:

  • whose voices will you listen to and amplify?
  • what have you noticed about where you have been focusing your attention?
  • perhaps even more importantly: where have you not been focusing your attention? Is there learning to be had there?
  • what is the simplest thing you will do to progress inclusion?
  • what is the most radical thing you will do to progress inclusion?
  • as you consider your sphere of influence within your institution, what can you do to address the systemic nature of exclusion and inequity?


Prior to her current role, Cindy Vallance held senior leadership roles at UK and Canadian universities. She is also an executive coach and a trustee for a charity that amplifies young people’s voices by co-creating social impact campaigns. Cindy’s exploration of the interconnectedness between individuals and systems is underpinned by her belief that both are necessary to create cultures of inclusion. 

Race Equality Colloquium 2022: Race Equality in Transformative Times: Exploring intersections of minority-racialised identity and neurodiversity

This virtual event offers an opportunity to explore the interplay between racialised identity and neurodiversity. Delegates will be able to investigate and conceptualise holistic models of inclusion in order to provide positive educational experiences and promote success for racially minoritised students with neurodiverse abilities. Find out more here.

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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