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Lord Simon Woolley: “When I think of governors, I cannot tell you how important your role is to the wellbeing of society”

10 Dec 2020 | Advance HE Advisory Chair to the government’s Race Disparity Unit and founder of Operation Black Vote opened our Governance Conference 2020 and implored HE leaders to be ‘visionaries’.

Advance HE CEO Alison Johns introduced Lord Woolley by demonstrating the impact he has already had on the way Advance HE is run and the progress made on race equality: “We have started staff equality monitoring, committed to the Race Equality Charter, created an action group, begun race awareness training for all staff and a new ‘leading race’ post has been created. We also now have a separate budget for race equality and have appointed Paul Millar to advise us on the subject. Without Simon’s challenge this wouldn’t have happened so quickly.

“Governance is absolutely key to the nature and character of higher education and what it can offer society.”

Simon then shared his experiences which have made him realise the impact education has on society: “I’m an activist, I wake up in the morning and think I can change the world. Changing the world seems so possible at the moment. We are having conversations that would have been impossible six months ago, let alone putting things into practice, so what Advance HE are doing is unbelievable.

“I was doing well at 21, I bought a flat which many young people can’t do now, but I still felt inferior because I wasn’t educated. I left my job to do an access course and it was the most life-changing and yet disappointing thing I’ve ever done.

“My biggest disappointment was the feeling that the people who had access to all this education didn’t necessarily come out better people. Some were still racist, others mean spirited, many looked down on women as inferior. The values I expected from the books we’d read were not there in abundance.

“Think about this for second: The role of HE governors to shape what comes out of their institution is almost like parenting; ethics, values, caring for our society. Therefore, I want you to have that Martin Luther King spirit. To be a warrior of social justice.”

Simon then said that while the global pandemic and ensuing crisis had shone a light on deep seated inequalities in our society, it was also an unprecedented opportunity for real and lasting change.

“This pandemic has affected everyone, but Black and minority ethnic communities have been hardest hit. Jobs, housing and education divides have all been exposed and sadly exacerbated.

“There are too many negative things that happen in our society to Black and brown people; Africans and Asians. The question is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’ Out of this awfulness, what we’re presented with, is the most wonderful opportunity. An opportunity to be honest, to be visionaries and to be transformative. The first step towards transformation, is for us to be leaders.

“Now is the time for us to really put our foot on the equality and equity gas. It’s a shame it’s taken such pain to put issues like this on the map, but if we have transformative change from it, I’ll take that.”

He then made it clear that leaders and governors, not just in higher education but society as a whole, have a great responsibility and privilege to drive progress.

“When I think of governors, I cannot tell you how important your role is to the wellbeing of society. Yes, day-to-day there are challenges, not least with Covid-19, but can I implore you to be the visionaries and leaders that you deserve to be. For all of us, 2020 has been a year like no other, we thank our lucky stars that dreadful things haven’t happened to us or our families. But if we can’t make the biggest changes in our lifetime now, then when? If not us, then who?

“To be clear: It’s not just about having Black and brown faces in high places. It’s about having people from all different backgrounds with lived experiences, so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Alison then went through some of the questions from delegates starting with how institutions can reach and recruit ethnically diverse talent.

Simon said: “You have to be brave, bold and on the front foot. Tell them that those coming to your institution can make their institutions more dynamic, more creative. But even more than that though, if you want to attract diversity you must be diverse yourself, talk the talk but also walk the walk.

“How do we recruit based on talent rather than qualifications and experience? The recruitment has to be done with acute human antennae. You’ve got to look at their motivation, their potential, see beyond the stats. Not everyone has started from the same line. On paper I’m guessing you wouldn’t choose Marcus Rashford or a Lewis Hamilton to be at your universities; but look, they are not just brilliant at their chosen sport but also in the vision for a better world: you need to find a way to look at more than who you traditionally thought of as a good bet.”

He then gave his thoughts on the three biggest changes institutions can make right now to become more diverse and representative.

“There’s a real opportunity to do three big things. Firstly, get the governance right, with people with lived experiences. Staff too, get the staff right, get them on full time contracts where they can grow. Don’t tell me the talent isn’t out there.

“Then the curriculum, for too long we’ve had an education system where Europe is at the centre of everything. This is not a culture war, it’s about modern 21st century education. Finally, the student population, instil them with the ethics and values of the entire institution.”

Simon closed the session by answering how we can challenge the small minority of people who will push back against change in society: “There is a small element of society who want categorise this as a ‘culture war’, pitting anti-racists against white people, and white working-class children. It’s divide and rule. We must not accept that and challenge it at every turn. We’re bigger and better than that.”

“Above all I’m hoping that a new generation of leaders will emerge from this ‘Governor collective’. Heaven knows, we need it.”

Find out more about the conference and the governance services we can offer your institution here.

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