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Time to talk culture, not metrics

01 Apr 2021 | Sebastian Bromelow Sebastian Bromelow, EDI Partner at Kingston University, writes that the metric-centric approach is not up to the job when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education.

How did we get here?!

Working in higher education (HE) can sometimes be a frustrating business, which is why I find myself spending quite a lot of time reflecting on the state of the sector and asking, “how did we get here?!”. Whether it’s awarding/attainment gaps, demographic disparities (staff and students), pay gaps, retention rates, progression rates – for a sector that has existed since the time of Henry VIII we’re still not fully living in the 21st century yet and there needs to be some ownership of that fact somewhere.

One of the root causes of this, in my opinion, has been the metric-centric nature of sectoral oversight, compounded by the corporatisation of the sector. Since the introduction and rise of the fees-based system there has been increasing pressure on Universities to demonstrate their “value for money”, most of which is being determined by metrics. No matter where you look there’s a metric – Widening Participation (WP), National Student Survey (NSS), Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), Access and Participation Plans (APPs) – wherever there’s an acronym, there’s a metric. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-target. I think shaping a sector that may not otherwise have shaped itself through the use of metric-based targets has created universities that are more diverse than ever. On the other hand, it’s too often felt like the sector has been obsessed with moving the numbers and not making the change – as former NUS President Shakira Martin said, “It’s about getting in and getting on”, what she didn’t say was, “It’s just about doing things to please OfS”.

Our student populations have rapidly (in the grand scheme of things) increased across a whole range of diversity factors. But, recruiting students to fulfil admissions targets was often not coupled with reflections on how Universities would have to change to ensure these students were “getting on”. It’s only in the last 5-7 years that people have been really talking about decolonising the curriculum, hidden curricula, attainment/awarding gaps – much of this work will take decades to really embed, so why wasn’t it started 20 years ago? I’d argue that it was because people were focused on the metric and not on the culture of the course/institution itself. Of course higher education has struggled to create equity in outcome when it’s been pushing 21st century students through a 20th (sometimes 19th) century model.

The same can be said for staff. A group even further behind the curve than students when it comes to actually having seen change. “Only 1% of UK professors in UK are black” a headline that did the rounds this year that caused ripples in the sector, despite that figure having not actually changed in years – in fact, a quick Google will show you that for at least the last 5 years it’s been reported in the exact same way.

What’s this got to do with anything Sebastian, I hear you ask? Well, universities, after Black Lives Matter, were scrabbling for ways to show they were now “taking action” (but for real this time) and many have turned to boosting the number of BAME staff, at all stages of the life-cycle, as a simple way to do that. Great in principle. Flawed in reality. Did we learn nothing from the widening participation example? You can’t just “get people in” you have to “get people on” - simply increasing the numbers with little to no reflection on the reality and culture of HE is risking more harm than good in the long term.

If we don’t start facing up to the fact that universities have, for centuries, been designed by, and for, a tiny slice of society to succeed, then we’re going to have issues. Making sure that that “1%” headline changes in the years to come is not just about trying harder in recruitment - it’s about shifting perceptions of academia within communities, it’s about shifting the very notion of higher education itself, it’s about pathway transformation, support, networking, inclusive workplaces… the list goes on. There is a whole transformation piece of work to be done, at least simultaneously, if not before, we even get round to just getting recruitment numbers up, so that all staff are able to authentically contribute and progress in a genuinely inclusive environment.

"Death to the quick win!"

Few things make an EDI person wince more than the term “quick win”. Diversity and Inclusion work is complex and takes real time – if it was simple we wouldn’t be where we are today. That’s not to say that things can’t be changed quickly; changing images, terminology, even processes can all be done at pace – but building sustainable change takes real time. How many people reading this now worked in an institution that suddenly created a “Race Equality Manager” role that was only a 6-12 month contract? This is a perfect example – quick win = getting the role funded and recruited, long-term impact = negligible... you can’t solve hundreds of years of institutional racism in 12 months. So, wake up and join me in chanting “death to the quick win”!

Culture, people and #EDIeveryday

Universities need to embrace the idea of sustainable long-term cultural and systemic change that places the person, not the metric, at the heart of all its work.

We must be planning now for what the sector will look like in 10, or even 20, years’ time. Forget about shifting Government priorities, new targets or the latest liberation campaign – if you have been paying attention, we know the work that needs to happen – your staff and students have been, and will continue to be, telling you – so let’s get it done.

Surely what we’re aiming for is an HE sector that provides world-leading education to all its students who, through an informed choice, are coming to study for their future in whatever it may be. That those students are able to succeed to the best of their abilities free from any barriers, supported by staff who are empowered, valued and have a true sense of belonging. Don’t you agree?

By placing culture and people at its heart, we can begin to build that future now. Today. We need to mainstream diversity and inclusion work into all aspects of higher education’s strategy, planning and processes, making #EDIeveryday a reality. Your staff and students are a fantastic asset - actively listen, cultivate their talents and work with, rather than on behalf of, them. This is all about understanding the “why?” and the “how?” of what we, as a sector, are working to achieve.

So, this is my one challenge to you all: against every single metric you can think of, ask yourself “why do we really have this?” and “how do we make this change sustainably happen?” and go from there.


Sebastian is EDI Partner at Kingston University. He has been working within education for the past 10 years across Widening Participation/Outreach, Schools and FE, Students’ Unions and University EDI and has been recognised multiple times for his contributions to diversity and inclusion work. He has a deep passion for people-centred work and a core belief in the notion of #EDIeveryday

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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