Our sector faces significant challenges in tackling our most persistent and significant inequalities and advancing equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).
To deliver on our values and commitments, we will need a more proactive, and inclusive approach, focused on intentionally building consensus across much broader coalitions. Fundamentally, this is about how we can best improve outcomes, and deliver the commitments set down in our organisational strategies.
Some of our more persistent challenges as a sector, such as the awarding gap or the severe underrepresentation of Black women in senior roles across institutions, can be more effectively addressed by moving away from silos and further adoption of intersectional approaches, within the context of broader participation and engagement.
The opportunity of strategic coalitions
A strategic approach to developing coalitions to practise intersectionality could involve:
Fostering good relations and bringing different groups together to tackle identified inequalities as a strategic institutional priority. This includes facilitating more intentional engagement between groups with different or oppositional views. We can hold our values of dignity and respect and foster a shared understanding concerning common institutional objectives, such as protecting freedom of speech and eliminating racial inequalities.
Working more explicitly in partnership in developing activity, streamlining existing structures and systems within institutions to bring more groups, interests and perspectives together, in a structured and supportive way. We need to equip our staff and students to build dialogue across diverse views and identify points of commonality in working together to deliver shared organisational objectives.
Transparent and objective use of evidence and data to identify specific inequalities as institutional priorities, and building up intersectionality and shared interests to explicitly build institutional consensus for change. For instance, much of our sector needs to have a clear focus on eliminating the awarding gap but can also recognise the value of a more diverse, inclusive and intersectional curriculum, so all of our students can develop a strong sense of belonging in the classroom, and successfully navigate a global workplace.
The current challenge
Over the past five years or so, across UK higher education we’ve seen an increase in the strategic importance and positioning of equality, diversity and inclusion within the sector and within institutions.
The visibility of EDI challenges has undoubtedly increased, from the landmark EHRC inquiry into racial harassment to the experience of disabled staff and students, the ongoing underrepresentation of women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff in senior roles, the awarding gap, and the lack of diversity in governance. Students and staff expect, often vocally, to see commitment and progress in advancing equality to address these challenges.
This context has greatly increased pressure on institutions to be more effective in delivering improved outcomes on EDI. However, the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and wider financial pressures across a range of institutions are pushing the sector to be more efficient at the same time. The pressures of efficiency and effectiveness are compounded by increased conflict and contention around EDI. Tensions and disputes are rising particularly around race, freedom of speech, and trans equality.
In response, organisational responsibility in universities is shifting to more senior roles, such as pro vice chancellors, assistant principals and deans of EDI, and equality is more prominently featured in organisational strategies. There is an increasing level of EDI knowledge, skill and motivation across the sector, and pockets of innovation. However, we recognise limitations in the ability to be proactive when we’ve spent the last 18 months pivoting and responding to external pressures and changes.
Additionally, and perhaps most crucially, many of the sector’s key approaches, tools and even legislation, from unconscious bias training, equality impact assessment (one of our main tools in mainstreaming or embedding consideration of equality across institutions) to the Equality Act 2010 itself, are not considered through a holistic lens. This can often restrict EDI to a reduced operational function. The minimisation of EDI in this operational light does not often speak to the complexities of EDI across the sector’s reality today.
A renewed approach
If we’re to meet the challenge of improving our progress in addressing intersecting inequalities whilst also navigating the current environment and obstacles set out above, a different approach is needed that complements our existing tools, skills and experiences. We need an approach that is strategically proactive and expansively inclusive, aiming to bring diverse groups together to foster good relations on common ground and tackle inequalities.
The potential for developing coalitions to implement intersectionality could provide a framework for broader activities that engage whole institutions, without losing the emphasis on the clearer articulation of the structures of inequality, or centring marginalised voices that are crucial to the progress towards becoming a more diverse and inclusive sector.
Advance HE’s external review of the Race Equality Charter acknowledges these factors, explicitly stating that genuine sector engagement and “buy-in will only be obtained when there is an alignment of interests” across institutions. In other words, we will only successfully address racial inequalities in our sector when we collectively see the importance and value in progress and embracing ownership and accountability for change.
As a sector committed to ensuring an inclusive environment for all staff and students, from any background, these ideas matter. But they also speak to institutions’ values and a fundamental role for higher education in finding and enabling the solutions to society’s most pressing communal challenges, through engagement, research and teaching.
Join Wonkhe and Advance HE on Thursday 21 October for our online event Living the Dream: building strategic coalitions for practising equality, diversity, and inclusion in HE. Find out more and book your ticket here.
The authors would like to acknowledge Cindy Vallance and Jess Moody at Advance HE for their contributions to this article.