Meeting the equality challenge in a changing environment

“A proposed change to funding arrangements” is a form of words that most not-for-profit organisations must dread. Senior leaders talk about change all the time, we talk about how we need to embrace it, harness its energy, and use it to push our organisations forward to achieve great things. Except to be honest we’d rather it didn’t relate to us having less money….

That is, nonetheless, the situation that Equality Challenge Unit found itself in earlier this year when HEFCE and DELNI announced they could not continue funding the organisation’s core work in England and Northern Ireland beyond 2015. Potentially a substantial body blow to be sure, and a decision which would act as the catalyst for some serious organisational re-evaluation on ECU’s part.

Since receiving the funding decision, ECU has taken the time to consider its strategy and mission, as well as its unique place within the higher education landscape. The first thing that was apparent was that whilst significant progress has been made, the ‘equality challenge’ has by no means disappeared within higher education. Inequality is still present when viewed through the optics of the various protected characteristics, and large areas of under-representation and disadvantage remain within the makeup of staff and student bodies across the UK. If you asked anyone in the sector whether there was a job of work to be done in this area they’d almost unanimously answer in the affirmative.

The next thing to consider was how we could continue to contribute to the sector in a meaningful way, and to do that, ECU had to identify where the edges of its work were, or, to be precise, point out what we ‘don’t do’. For example, there are lots of E&D consultants who can advise HR staff on the legal ramifications of adhering to equality legislation when recruiting staff, and there is clearly some demand for that sort of work. However, is this really where ECU makes a difference in higher education? We didn’t think so. We maintain that Equality Challenge Unit exists to address chronic and long standing issues of underrepresentation amongst staff and students within higher education – issues that remain resistant to complete resolution. Any ‘offer’ we made to the sector had to have this at its core, and had to put HEIs at the heart of what we do.

To add to the complexity of the situation, ECU has existing agreements in place with both the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and the Scottish Funding Council, where our work continues to be centrally-funded. It has therefore been crucial that we balance our subscription-led agenda alongside programmes of work we will be undertaking in Wales and Scotland.

Being of the sector, ECU was only too aware that it wasn’t the only organisation to be affected by the financial implications of a changing higher education landscape, and were under no illusion that the challenges we faced were also being experienced elsewhere in the sector, nowhere more so than in universities themselves. How would we go about asking institutions to pay for our services when budgets are being squeezed and belts are being tightened? We knew it was paramount that any offer we came up with provided genuine value for money and meaningfully contributed to the equality and diversity aims of the institution. To achieve this we ran a sector-wide consultation.

If feedback is the breakfast of champions, then the staff of Equality Challenge Unit have digested a full English breakfast, some assorted pastries and more than their fair share of muesli. The consultation provided us with the coordinates to a realistic blueprint of the organisation we’d need to become under a subscription-led model. Suggestions for what institutions wanted to see from us included dedicated account management, increased support for participating in our equality charters, and consultative visits to support them with their own equality and diversity related issues.

From this, we crafted an offer for universities based on three promises about the way ECU subscription would benefit them. We have said we will:

1) Provide an authoritative voice, keeping institutions in the picture when it comes to emerging policy, legislation or national trends affecting the sector,

2) Support institutions in addressing their specific equality needs, and

3) Build a supported community of good practice across the higher education sector

Given ECU’s work is often nuanced, complex and multi-faceted, it was crucial that we were able to communicate a clear and compelling offer to institutions, without alienating anyone or losing them through marketing-speak. Either way, it was, and still remains imperative that we view all of our work through the eyes of higher education institutions. Whilst not losing sight of the “challenge” element of our mission, their challenges are our challenges, their goals our objectives.

Equality Challenge Unit’s subscription offer went live on 21 July, and our attention has now turned back to developing our core work. This includes producing a programme of policy areas we will be focussing on in our first subscription year, and making further improvements to our charter mark processes.

Of course, there’s a lot of work still to be done before ECU becomes a subscription organisation in 2016, and even then, we’ve no doubt that we’ll need to develop our offer further. We’ve been steadfast in our desire to remain open and honest with the sector about our circumstances, and on the whole, institutions have responded with patience and understand that some aspects of the new ECU are a work in progress. That said, there’s no room for complacency and no excuses for not delivering on our promises in year one.

All things considered, ECU’s evolution into a subscription-led organisation has been a fairly organic process, and the internal response has been pragmatic and positive. However, now we’ve gone out to the sector, we know it’s more important than ever that we continue to listen and respond to its changing demands. There is simply no other way for us to deliver on our mission.

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