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Integrated thinking – improving diversity and inclusion from Student to Board

01 Sep 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 vision and mission. In the second blog in this series Kim Ansell looks at the benefits of a holistic/integrated approach to delivering outcomes, from student to Board, based on a review of BAME recruitment at the University of Leicester undertaken by Advance HE.

The benefits of having a diverse workforce in any organisation are overwhelmingly well-evidenced and should be part of the way it functions, permeating the culture of the organisation to deliver holistic outcomes.

While measures and statistics are helpful in indicating if the organisation is on the right track to delivering its purpose, mission and values they don’t tell the whole story: and it is only the Boards and Executive Teams who actively embrace diversity rather than simply comply with obligations, that will really foster a diverse and inclusive culture.   Board practice is improving across the sector, but some still struggle to fully and holistically engage with the diversity agenda.  

It still the case that there are frustrated champions of EDI working across institutions, such as EDI networks and action groups, who despite their best efforts to bring about change are constrained by culture, structure and processes that reinforce inequality. 

Creative interventions led by staff and/or students, increasingly raise awareness of the challenges, but without sustained leadership from across the organisation to tackle structural inequality they can only have limited impact. This is where Boards and Executive Teams have the most opportunity to challenge the status quo. Creating a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture demands a sustained effort led from the top.

The University of Leicester has a diverse student population, with 52% of its global students coming from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background. (Of course ‘BAME’ includes a huge amount of diversity which intersects with other identify characteristics; for this discussion I will stick to the more generic BAME category). However, Leicester’s growth in staff from BAME backgrounds has not followed the same upward trajectory as its students. 

Keen to address the under-representation of BAME staff in the workforce, Dr Angie Pears, Interim Associate Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and Organisational Development, commissioned Advance HE to undertake a review of the University’s recruitment process and practice.

Currently 14.2% of teaching staff at Leicester University are BAME, and 9.8% of Professors. More broadly, all BAME academic staff total 16.5%. The University has formally committed to improve this with KPIs in place for the % of staff self-reporting as BAME by 2025 as follows:

30% of all staff

25% of academic staff

15% of all Professors

10% of Grade 10 staff

Appointed during our review, Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Leicester’s new and first BAME VC says in one of his recent announcements, “I want Leicester to set the standard in the UK and beyond for inclusion in higher education.”

Indeed, the University’s mission states, ‘we will have a culture of equality where everyone is valued’, and sees its staff and students as being ‘Citizens of Change’. Leicester is clearly committed to closing the gap with respect to staff diversity. 

One of the most important focus points for Leicester is staff recruitment. “A more diverse workforce creates better staff and student communication and relationships, supporting better student experience, engagement and success”, says Dr Angie Pears.

Our review found that Leicester has been working hard to put in place strong foundations upon which to enable and build a diverse workforce. This includes enhancing data and information to evidence and focus on the most important areas, aspects of training and development and two substantive initiatives. In a significant step towards diversifying the pipeline, the College of Social Science, Arts and Humanities had created three BAME postgraduate scholarships over the next four years (nine in total). On completion of these scholarships, recipients will be able to compete for a one-year fellowship.

In addition, the Head of Service for Estates has made conscious efforts to attract and retain a diverse workforce. They have built in flexibility within the roles e.g. around hours for people with families and caring responsibilities etc. The Service has also made efforts to develop standards and a pipeline for progression to retain staff.

However, Leicester wants to achieve more. ‘We want to recruit and retain diverse staff in all types of roles, across the whole University and at all levels”,says Dr Pears. 

Our review concluded that, Leicester has sound foundations and initiatives in place to work towards its mission. Proposed actions clearly demonstrate a clear commitment to continued progress – while recognising there is a large amount of further work required to achieve the desired goals. 

In supporting Leicester’s ambitions our review recommended establishing a specific action plan around recruitment and retention. This is to run alongside a commitment to pursue underlying cultural change that re-thinks traditional ways of working, tackles learned behaviours and assumptions about responsibility and agency.

The University’s reputation and the importance of place, civic mission and external relationships, provide a strong platform from which the Board, staff and students can innovate. Leicester is working hard to forge local connections and to leverage these opportunities better becoming a more inclusive local employer. Part of the process to achieve this is a clear plan for the leadership team and staff to be more active in its civic relationships, and break down historic, if only perceived, ‘town v gown’ barriers.  

Such a plan also requires that HR/EDI teams work collaboratively with senior leaders and the Board to devise joined up solutions to address the range of issues, cultural, reputational, social, financial and practical resourcing issues across the organisation.

Better articulating and visioning what ‘good’ looks like is an important starting point. We agreed with Leicester that helping their community from student to Board, understand ‘what good looks like for Leicester’ is a first step. Dr Pears says that a new strategy is being developed that will have a strong diversity and inclusion component to it and it is the intention that this will look to effect a culture shift, by reflecting the views of staff and students. As part of this, agreeing a positive culture of challenge and calling out discourse or behaviours which do not support the desired state is essential. This may include providing safe spaces for such challenge. 

Reflecting on its success in achieving a better gender balance, Leicester understands that it requires a holistic approach to recruitment in order to similarly achieve BAME diversity and inclusion. This will include more focus on developing the pipeline, identifying roles for positive practices, looking at local strategic engagement, briefing recruiters differently, using alternative methods of advertising vacancies, improving data about where applicants come from and using of different/more positive language to attract applicants from BAME communities.  

Leicester has started to implement a university-wide and detailed initiative to improve diversity in recruitment, and is considering a range of actions for changing behaviour and tackling staff retention.  

The key elements of the programme include:

  • Practical tips/guidance on mitigating unconscious bias at all stages of the recruitment process and not just at interview. 
  • Emphasising the collective responsibility of all panel members for ensuring fair practice and changing the role of HR in interview panels to one of quality control - guiding the panels and being more proactive about how the process is carried out.
  • Changing some processes around how decisions regarding appointment are made.
  • In the short term, identification and focus of attention on those roles where the likelihood of BAME candidates is high.

Dr Pears suggests, “Look out for ‘hot spots’ in the recruitment process that need addressing such as the disparity between the numbers of BAME applicants and the numbers shortlisted, going forward for interview and ultimately getting the post.”

I would add to that, implementing a programme of two-way coaching and mentoring for BAME leaders across the organisation might help change that all important institutional cultural mind set. Research from Stonewall (albeit relating to LGBT+ people) evidences that the right culture will not just help recruit a diverse workforce but will also improve retention. The University already has a Coaching Academy and is now looking to provide BAME staff with support to facilitate systemic change. It is considering a cross organisational mentorship scheme.

Governors, HR Directors/Executive Teams and Student Unions need to take a collaborative approach to the people strategy, with short, medium and long term goals which have clear leading indicators and challenging performance targets. Universities must look at the whole staff recruitment process and behaviours of those at the very top of the organisation to embed and sustain diverse staff recruitment and retention. 

While HR and EDI staff have a critical role to play in tackling inequality and creating a diverse workforce, change will not happen unless responsibility is more widely held. Taking responsibility from student to Board is critical in a mature diverse organisation, and diversity and inclusion should be everyone’s responsibility.

Perhaps the key learning of our work with Leicester was the importance of institutional culture in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. Whether you call it holistic, joined up, connected or integrated, your culture is critical to the achievement of your purpose and vision. Clearly articulating what that culture is and embedding ownership of it – and a place within it – from student to Board is a vital step on your journey to diversity and inclusion”.

Kim Ansell.

I would love to hear your stories about achieving staff diversity and inclusion or any other important and strategic initiative. You can contact me at

After note: Advance HE’s frameworks on diversity principles and board recruitment have a number of suggestions for how to address some of the issues and to help form the basis of a plan.

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 here

Find out more about Advance HE's work to produce and share news, guidance, research, publications, resources and toolkits to support good governance.

Join us online at this year's governance conference, 'Transforming Governance for a new normal', 20 November 2020.

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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