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Diversity at the top

As student populations have diversified, progress has not been matched in leadership and management across UK higher education. Randall Whittaker looks at the dire state of diversity at the very top, shares some shocking examples of recent intolerance that he has faced on UK university campuses, and calls for urgent action to tackle this problem.
This article is more than 9 years old

Randall Whittaker is Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic at Leeds Arts University.    

In the last year I have personally experienced intolerance on UK university campuses. Three examples:

  • I have been mistaken as a chauffeur when attempting to park my car in an allotted car parking space at the installation of a Chancellor.
  • I have been mistaken as a porter by a new board member before the start of a meeting (an awkward meeting followed).
  • I was informed by a conference organiser at a DVC networking event that the room I was heading for was only for senior university leaders.

Diversity at leadership level within UK higher education is a complex issue but this piece represents my views informed by observation and lived experience as a senior manager from a BME background working in UK higher education, originally from South Africa.

Although significant disparities still exist within student demographics at UK universities, there is a positive and on some campuses, a highly visible shift in terms of diversity. Progress in achieving increased participation for leaders from a BME background however remains painfully slow.

According to HESA 2012/2013 data there are no UK university vice-chancellors from a black or Asian background, although the ethnicity of ten vice-chancellors is undeclared.

Out of 525 deputy vice chancellors or pro-vice chancellors, ten are Asian, none are black, five are listed as “other” (including mixed race) and the ethnicity of 15 others is not given.

Comparing this HESA data to the UK adult census data, the under-representation of BME leaders in our universities is highlighted further. The UK adult census data indicate that 3.3% of the UK population is black whilst 7.5% are Asian.

So what do we do about improving this situation? There is perhaps something to learn from the approach adopted by highly selective small specialist institutions to widen access in their student demographics.  These institutions often face significant challenges in diversifying their student populations because of a variety of complex socio economic factors.

Training professional specialists requires time, investment and a lot of effort.  These institutions do however start by engaging with students whilst they are very young, therefore developing them and their support infrastructure (parents/guardian) by exposure to a specialist environment. This creates the real potential for those young people to one day be competitive at selection as an undergraduate student at a specialist institution. Outreach work is thus long-term, highly targeted, sustained and focused on talent development.

I suggest that achieving improved representation in HE leadership requires an approach not too dissimilar than the one outlined above. To me it seems simple; identify leadership potential, systematically develop that potential through mentoring and shadowing whilst allowing time for constant reflection. More time, effort and investment is needed and without a highly proactive approached in developing diverse leadership representation in UK HE, we dramatically limit our potential pool of leaders and therefore hamper diverse thinking at the top.

A diverse board of governors could also improve the quality of decisions. Limited data exists on the diversity of governing bodies in higher education, but search committees would I am sure confirm what a difficult task it is to recruit a diverse governing body.  As governing bodies are responsible for setting institutional mission, and a subcommittee of governors typically oversee senior appointments, it is thus also their responsibility to move equality matters beyond ‘compliance’.

We need to ensure that equality, diversity and inclusion training for governors is comprehensive, frequent and undertaken by specialists. Crucially, any such training must deal systematically with identifying and eliminating bias.

The recruitment of university leaders by its very nature can draw on a very narrow pool of individuals, posing a dilemma for anyone seeking to establish a diverse pool of talent. The use of head hunters to facilitate the recruitment of university leaders also requires consideration as their recruitment methods are less transparent and therefore harder to influence. Perhaps intervention is needed to ensure that the Voluntary Code of Conduct for Executive Search Firms is comprehensive and that a long list is truly made up of a broad range of candidates.

Whatever the precise solution established, it is time for the sector at all levels, including head hunters, to come together and proactively tackle this problem.

5 responses to “Diversity at the top

  1. This is a complex issue which university boards, councils and institutions will only address with positive strategies but the situation is not helped by funding drivers particularly those associated with research.

    But perhaps wonkhe needs to put its own house in order ? Overwhelmingly contributors are white and male.

  2. You’re absolutely right Pam, wonkhe like the rest of the sector faces some important challenges in this area that we must not shrink from.

    I am actively working on diversifying wonkhe at the moment. This work is tied to our wider plans for expansion and improvement and I hope will be visible before too long.

  3. Wonkhe does great stuff and nothing should detract from the importance of Randall’s piece but surprisingly enough we don’t think equality of representation and comment should be dependent on expansion ! Just get in touch or respond to submissions and cast the talent net wider !!

  4. Thanks Pam. When I said this effort was tied to expansion I chose my words carefully. The work to ‘expand’ wonkhe is about expanding our capacity to do innovative new things, improve what we’ve done before and crack a number of lingering issues – including the diversity of comment and thinking on the site. It is not linked to volume – and it is not straight-forward, particularly given the biases in the sector discussed on the above piece and explored elsewhere.

    ‘Blogging’ also presents an additional set of barriers linked to gender and I’ll admit to not doing well enough on this issue as an editor of the site and a curator of the space more generally over the past few years.

    Once we have expanded in the ways I have planned, I hope you’ll be able to judge our performance on this issue on its own terms, and in the meantime I hope you stick with us.

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