EDI at senior levels of HE

Development Monthly | #13 September 2022 | EDI at senior levels of HE

Patrick Johnson

Director of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion
University of Law

I have worked in education for over 30 years, including 20+ years in higher education. As I reflect on this time I have been wondering how much has changed, in terms of diversity and inclusion. Do I feel included and part of the university community? Are there more staff working in higher education who look like me, particularly in middle and senior management roles?

Compared to the general population, there is good representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in the student body (at some institutions). Over the last two decades, there has definitely been an increase in the racial diversity of staff across institutions. Unfortunately, this change hasn’t reached the higher levels of university management. I do sometimes wonder whether a lot of that diversity is in staff we tend to see first thing in the morning, at the end of the working day or at lunchtimes.

Working at a university there is a sense of fairness and integrity. The Academy perceives itself to be a shining example of meritocracy, where everyone with the skills, knowledge, and motivation, can aspire to reach the highest level. Most staff you speak to are unable to comprehend the fact that they may be biased or that they do not recruit, promote, support, or assess work, solely on merit. This makes conversations more difficult because we don’t believe that we are doing anything wrong in higher education. Certainly, we hear a number of Vice-Chancellors and their senior team voice strong commitment to wanting to be more racially diverse, but how is this manifest in reality? Do Directors of Services, Heads of Department and Principal Investigators feel the same? After all, they are the people who recruit, promote, and support the majority of staff at an institution. Have they really bought into the senior management commitment, or do they just nod approval and continue to recruit in their own image.  It does make you question whether these are empty words or are staff held to account.

I don’t want to underestimate what has been achieved. When I started working in EDI back in 2007, I would describe that time as a period of a lack of real interest and engagement in EDI by institutions. The main focus was on regulation and ensuring that you were legally compliant. It was a real struggle for EDI practitioners, knocking on the door and pleading to be listened to. I would say that those days have largely gone and there is now more of an established focus on EDI with a number of roles working hard to support and facilitate change.

Over several years there has been pressure from trade unions, staff network groups, students, and equality practitioners to have more of a focus on race and ethnicity. Initiatives like the Race Equality Charter Mark has provided a framework for institutions to consider race equality for staff and for students. Looking at their data, reviewing policy and consulting and involving key stakeholders has helped to make a difference as it has provided that opportunity to have a serious conversation about the issues and to develop actions to address them. It is a shame that more institutions are not utilising this framework which is about looking at the reality and being evidence-led.

In the past, I have certainly felt that as a black man I have been pigeon-holed. I don’t necessarily believe that this is deliberate, but I think it is easier to see and accept a person of colour in a senior role related to EDI than in perhaps another senior position. In my current role I am part of the Executive Board/senior leadership team and have strategic responsibility for EDI, Student Support Services and Widening Participation. I was given the opportunity to build on my skills and experience and to expand my role. In short, sometimes, you just need someone who believes in you and gives you a chance to shine. This could be via a secondment, expanded role or project opportunity. Role models also cannot be underestimated. If I can’t see someone like me then I am not sure if this role is for me, and equally others (those recruiting) may feel the same way. The need for networks and role models doesn’t end when you are offered a role. You can be filled with self-doubt about whether you can actually do the job, your imposter syndrome sets in, and you wonder if you are good enough. Getting the role is only the beginning, and support and development also needs to be there.

Talking to colleagues over the years, it is hard when you cannot come up with a good reason why you were not chosen for a role, when you thought you met the job description perfectly. This can lead you to think that it has something to do with you and the colour of your skin. This of course may not be the case, but unless good credible feedback is given, you make the reasons for failure up yourself and you are unable to learn and develop for the next time. For institutions there is a need to think about the feedback you provide and how you can support and develop a good candidate, to ensure that they are the best candidate next time.

There is no doubt that we have all had a challenging few years and in terms of race equality, the summer of 2020 and the shockwave that followed the death of George Floyd in America was felt here in the UK, and in higher education it forced us to really think and focus on race. On the 31st March 2021, The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – which was appointed by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in response to Black Lives Matter protests during summer 2020 – published its 258-page report on inequality in Britain. The report argues that the UK has become a “more open society” in which issues of race and racism are becoming less important for explaining persistent inequalities. The report’s findings challenge the view that Britain has “failed to make progress in tackling racial inequality” and suggest that the “well-meaning ‘idealism’ of many young people who claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by evidence” (The Guardian). The Commission said that they no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. Where impediments and disparities exist, they felt that very few of them are directly related to racism. This rose-tinted view continues to be presented and certainly those currently leading Government feel there is no need for these EDI roles or positive action initiatives to continue, as race is not a problem.

What’s been most challenging for me has been trying to convince colleagues that this wonderful, meritocratic world of higher education that we work in is impacting negatively on some of our staff and students and particularly those that don’t look like them, and that although you believe that you and everyone around you treats everyone equally, the reality is somewhat different. We absolutely need to be evidence-led and the evidence is clear that we still do not live or work in an equal society and if we continue to close our eyes to that, things will not improve.

So, what does the future hold? I consider myself a pragmatic optimist! You don’t work in EDI and expect things to change overnight.  You know that some things like increasing the ethnic diversity in senior positions or reducing the racial awarding gap for our students is going to take some time. 20 years on and I have definitely seen improvements and change, but the pace of that change is too slow. For me, numbers are important, but the environment is critical.  No one will flourish in an environment where they don’t feel like they belong. So, the challenge is to keep being passionate, acknowledging the good work that is taking place but also calling institutions to account when the evidence demonstrates that change needs to happen, and nothing is being done.

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