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Integrated thinking – improving diversity and inclusion from student to Board

21 Jul 2020 | Kim Ansell The culture of an organisation affects its people, its effectiveness and the outcomes it achieves. Working holistically not only helps organisations achieve their outcomes, but more purposeful integrated thinking supports and sustains an organisation to achieve its purpose. In this series of three blogs, Kim Ansell looks at a number of themes demonstrating the benefits of an holistic and integrated approach to delivering outcomes for everyone in an institution, from student to Board.

Achieving diversity and inclusion in any organisation should be part of the way it functions - an holistic commitment which permeates the culture of the organisation to deliver its values and purpose. 

Using the UWL (University of West London) as an example (and declaring my interest as a co-opted governor on the UWL Workforce Committee), I wanted to explore how this particular institution, in being driven by its values, has made such impressive strides on embedding ‘diversity’ at the core – and what learning can be shared as a result.

Broken down into constituent parts, diversity and inclusion have different meanings and aims; for example, achieving equality within an organisation is different from increasing diversity or fostering an inclusive culture. And each of those constituent parts can be interpreted in different ways such as equality of opportunity or experience or outcome. So each institution must contextualise its own meaning and ensure that the meaning is agreed and shared from student to Board, and backed up with meaningful KPIs or data and statistics, as UWL has done.  

Executive teams and boards need effectively configured performance indicators help indicate to the organisation whether it is on the right track to delivering its purpose and mission in line with its values. 

Statistics about staff, students and the Board can evidence diversity and inclusion, and with ‘being diverse’ as one of the five UWL (University of West London) values, they celebrate significant achievements in BAME diversity and inclusion. For example, 33% of UWL staff are from a BAME background, against a sector average of 13%; and this compares very favourably with the London HE average of 22.4%. (Of course, the category of BAME contains within it a huge amount of diversity which intersects with other characteristics, but for the purposes of integrated thinking and changing culture, I will stick to the broader BAME category.) 

Digging a bit deeper, you can see that this isn’t a ‘superficial statistic’ at UWL, but a real passion which demonstrates living the values. Moreover, 28% of their academic staff are from a BAME background where the sector average is also 13%, and the London average 16.9 %. UWL has four Black professors, which is among the highest in the UK (not accounting for size), and 30% of the senior management group is from a BAME background. The UWL median ethnicity pay gap is 5.57%, which tops off their impressive staff record comparing favourably with the London average of 13.6%, and is only slightly behind the England median at 3.8%.

At the same time, UWL’s student body is 56.4% BAME, and the UWL Board now comprises of eight women and five members from ethnic minorities. The data and information about the governors is to be continuously monitored in the future, and increasing the diversity of this group will form part of their future story.

So, how has this been accomplished? 

Neil Henderson, Director of HR at UWL argues that it is, “part of a sustained and cultural approach to EDI which permeates the Board, staff and students and which relies on a valued and sustained partnership with the Student Union (SU)”.  Neil goes onto explain that UWL is, “not complacent” and doesn’t look at ethnicity in isolation. He says, “UWL has a collective approach to all Equality Diversity and Inclusion issues, and as such the University Equalities and Diversity Advisory Group is made up of representatives from across the University, including the SU. To date we have and will continue to develop an intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion, which will include socio-economic factors.”  

While the CUC Code requires Boards to promote a culture which supports inclusivity and diversity across the provider, including the governing body’s own operation, we notice that it is taking time for some Boards and Executive teams to balance their compliance-led approach, and I would challenge whether many institutions really take a holistic look at this. The word culture is key here. It is evident in the work of Advance HE that some Boards and Executive Teams see fulfilling their obligations as a compliance issue and not a really cultural one.

So, how can Boards and Executive Teams work holistically to more effectively and fully embrace diversity and inclusion? The starting point, I would argue, is an holistic, integrated, approach, determined by the institution’s vision or purpose and underpinned by strong values. 

This means:

Governing bodies should routinely consider their own composition and take steps to ensure they reflect ‘societal norms and values’. While many ‘societal norms’ go against diversity and inclusion, clearly  demonstrated by the underrepresentation of women as governors in many sectors, this is clearly an area which has been given some attention by the HE sector. Much progress has been made by some institutions on the issue of gender (many HEI Boards having 50% female Board members) however, much more is required regarding all characteristics on Boards and committees; and indeed in staff recruitment as well as student recruitment and widening participation agendas. 

Universities must look at the whole staff recruitment process and their culture to embed and sustain diverse staff recruitment and retention. I will explore this topic in more detail in my next blog in this series, but if a focus on culture is absent from a review of recruitment processes, then arguably universities will not be successful in embedding and sustaining diverse recruitment and retention. If the approach is not integrated with culture change, then there can be a lack of agency to take responsibility, to embed and to sustain the change needed.

I suggest that governors, HR Directors/Executive Teams and Student Unions take a collaborative approach to the people strategy, with short, medium and long term goals which have clear leading indicators and challenging performance targets. HE is a people business, and few would disagree that people (students, staff and governors) are a university’s greatest asset.  It is an organisation’s assets that allow it to create value and achieve its vision, mission and outcomes. As a co-opted governor on the UWL Workforce Committee, I am struck by the way the Student Union embraces the relationship with governors, joining informal discussions, doing tours, being connected in with the priorities of the organisation in a way which really makes an integrated approach meaningful. I take pleasure in seeing how rewarding it can be.

“This approach requires a significant change in mind-set for some, but a holistic approach needs to be taken, determined by the vision for the organisation, to foster and embed the most important things that the university wants to achieve” Chuchu Nwagu, UWL student voice co-ordinator, SU.    

I will conclude with some final thoughts on achieving and embedding equality and diversity:

- institutions that think beyond linear targets and specific protected characteristics will benefit hugely,

- Boards that, particularly encompass diversity of thought and socio economic factors and the intersection of protected characteristic should be more diverse and representative of those they are governing,

- a proactive approach to understanding and addressing the equality impacts of decision making is vital. Strategic Equality Impact Assessment is a topic covered comprehensively by my colleague David Bass in a recent blog

So whether you call it holistic, joined up, connected  or integrated – it's about deciding what culture you want and what are the important drivers to achieving your purpose/vision, then embedding that from student to Board.   

I would love to hear your stories about ‘student to board’ holistic or integrated thinking on the issue of EDI or any other important and strategic initiative. You can contact me at kim.ansell@advance-he.ac.uk.

Find out more about Advance HE’s frameworks on diversity principles and Board recruitment which have a number of suggestions for how to address some of the issues and to help form the basis of a plan.

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