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Wonkhe community survey 2021: equality, diversity, and inclusion

What should the HE sector prioritise to make real change on equality, diversity and inclusion in 2021-22? Debbie McVitty reports findings from the Wonkhe community survey
This article is more than 2 years old

Every summer we badger Wonkhe readers to tell us what they’re thinking about contemporary HE policy issues – and from where we sit, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) work has shifted from an area of work that’s considered important, but niche, to being core to universities’ mission.

That’s partly down to high profile public campaigns addressing the needs of specific groups – Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and student advocacy and activism – but also to sector-led policy work like Universities’ UK Changing the Culture, Athena Swan, Advance HE’s Disabled Students’ Commission, and cross-sector work on awarding gaps.

There’s also been a noticeable shift towards thinking about inclusion across the breadth of universities’ activity. EDI has always been an important dimension of widening participation, but contemporary work on inclusive learning and teaching, decolonising the curriculum, and improving research culture is addressing the ways that university history, culture and practice can bake in unexamined biases and unintentionally exclude or put up barriers to full participation and success for both students and staff.

All this good work comes with a world of trouble, of course. This welcome season, universities are coming under fire for building values based content – on issues like consent, anti-racism, diversity, or sustainability – into students’ induction, with former universities minister Chris Skidmore reported as commenting that universities “moralising” is an “abuse of authority”.

But even putting aside external pressures, EDI in universities can still be a source of tension, with different groups and issues coming in and out of prominence, limited resources, and different views about what EDI work is intended to achieve, the scale of change required, and what analytical lenses should be brought to bear. These conversations can become fractious quickly – with all the defensiveness, confusion and anger that results ultimately setting back progress.

So this year’s Wonkhe community survey asked our readers a handful of questions about their views of EDI work in their context and what action they believe higher education organisations should take in 2021-22 to make meaningful progress.

Overall for this part of the survey we had 642 responses. It’s worth noting that we didn’t gather demographic data on personal characteristics – we felt that the level of detail we would be asking people to share about themselves was not warranted for a survey of this scale, and we knew that our sample would not be large enough to warrant splitting responses.

We did ask about location (89 per cent in England); place of work (89 per cent in an HE provider); and professional area (predominantly in professional services, but nearly a quarter/23 per cent were academics and just under five per cent were from students’ unions).

Opinions on equality, diversity and inclusion

The majority of respondents to our survey were strongly supportive of the pursuit of equality, diversity and inclusion in HE, with 86 per cent selecting “Strongly agree” and a further 11 per cent “agree”. Even taking into account the probability of social desirability bias, this is a very strong indication of support. Positively, given the perceived nervousness about saying the wrong thing when discussing EDI related issues, the vast majority (86 per cent) also agreed that they are comfortable discussing EDI in professional HE settings.

Around two thirds (65 per cent) reported that they have personally been involved in planning, events, activities, or initiatives to support EDI in their organisation – which either suggests the scale of penetration of EDI activity in the sector or that respondents to our survey are particularly active in this area.

Views of organisational activity and actions taken were more mixed. 70 per cent agreed they understand the steps their organisation is taking to address deficiencies in equality, diversity and inclusion, but with a much lower level of strong agreement at 28 per cent. And when asked whether current efforts are sufficient to make meaningful progress towards equality, diversity and inclusion in HE, only 37 per cent agreed.

Community survey 2021 responses on EDI
Wonkhe community survey responses (n=642)

So taking into account this is a group composed of individuals who report a high personal commitment to, and involvement with, EDI, what do Wonkhe readers think should happen next? We asked an open question: “What, in your view, could your higher education organisation do in 2021-22 to make meaningful progress on equality, diversity, and inclusion?” and while the responses were characteristically wide-ranging, there were some key areas of agreement.

Diverse representation everywhere

Diversity of leadership and governance was a clear theme, but respondents didn’t only focus on appointing diverse leaders. A number of respondents talked about “diversity at every level”, and there were also suggestions of strategic appointments to enable curriculum breadth, of building a staff profile that more closely aligns to the student body, and appointment of EDI experts and role models in strategically important roles. There were several pleas that administrative and professional staff be remembered as contributing to EDI – and, perhaps, requiring greater diversity of representation, as well as academic staff.

To achieve this diversity respondents hoped to see a shift in recruitment, reward and promotion practice, with a wider range of forms of service to universities recognised as a pathway to leadership. Some pointed to fair and equal pay, and terms and conditions as EDI issues that can reduce diversity. It was also frequently suggested that EDI objectives should be included in objectives for all managers across the institution – in one case it was suggested that these objectives should be public.

One respondent suggested that all staff should be afforded time to develop thinking and research on EDI issues to make it part of their role:

Allow staff to have time to research and develop in EDI, include it as part of their roles, not just a mandatory module when you join so it’s a tick box exercise.

Transparency of processes for progression came up as well – for example, one respondent suggested that they found their PhD application process unnecessarily opaque.

Embed EDI across the institution

A second strong message from respondents was a desire to see EDI woven across the whole organisation, with terms like “coordination”, “consistency of focus”, “joined-up”, “collaboration”, “culture change”, “strategic change”, and “embed in core activity”. The general sense from this strand of responses was that while existing activity is positive, greater impact could be achieved if isolated or standalone activities were woven together into a more strategic cross-institutional approach that encouraged widespread involvement.

Focus on using the EDI lens to inform and enhance strategic change initiatives + policies, practice and support. This may be more important than standalone high profile events or activities.

[EDI] needs to be integrated into other agendas (research funding, staff wellbeing, student recruitment etc.) instead of being seen as an add-on.

Greater understanding and knowledge sharing is needed. There are a LOT of initiatives but not enough staff to implement them. Need to embed EDI fully rather than have it as an add on. Having said that my institution is working hard on this but like most places there’s still work to do.

Some respondents introduced the idea of intersectionality to indicate a more holistic and embedded approach to EDI:

It needs to be reviewed and enhanced holistically. EDI issues are intersectional and should be resolved/enhanced with that in mind.

Not put things in boxes e.g. BLM, gender equality, LGBTQ+….you need to acknowledge the intersectionality of these things and look at the overall picture across the institution for all.

A clear challenge for any strategic change agenda is resourcing, and so it is not surprising that resource came up frequently as an issue for respondents:

It’s all about resources – academics have been told to make progress on this agenda, academic admin roles have been created to support this agenda but the people taking on those roles have not been given any resources to achieve this agenda…I have not experienced any other sector that relies on voluntary overwork to achieve its aims!

Invest in people to carry out the work. We have the strategic leadership and the research but it all falls flat with not enough staff to deliver interventions etc.

Engage widely and deeply

There was a similarly strong theme about the importance of listening to groups affected by inequality. Respondents talked about understanding the lived experience of diverse groups, and building trust and connection. The importance of listening to students was raised frequently.

Give everyone a platform to tell their story, learn from others, make mistakes and learn from them.

Listen to, understand and engage with the voices of under-represented groups. Actively monitor the reflex to be either complacent or defensive.

Some advocated the importance of listening in general, but others also expressed concern about the breadth of involvement and engagement in the conversation. Some felt that conversations were too closed, or that some voices were prioritised at the expense of others, or that conversations themselves were not always inclusive.

A wide range of individuals needs to be involved, not just those who shout the latest or complain the most.

Encourage safe space to discuss and try new things. Be accepting of difference in understanding/perception of equality gaps. Most important is to create a safe space rather than pressure/edict on equality. ‘You must perceive EDI in this way’ is not in itself allowing EDI.

There was in some cases an open acknowledgement that in the face of disagreement about priorities, active consensus building would be required to avoid paralysis:

We have to build a coalition, a consensus that this is what we are going to do, that although there are many who would want more, that these are the stages we are going to do.

Less talk, more action

The last key message coming from respondents clustered around the theme of wanting to see fewer policies, public statements, and analyses of data, and more positive action. Some respondents expressed frustration at institutions that they felt “talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.” A handful complained about “lip service” and gaps between rhetoric and action.

Some of this frustration could perhaps be mitigated with greater openness and transparency, which was another clear theme in responses – respondents suggested more frequent institutional communications on EDI, open data publication and regular updates on progress.

Lived experience

Our final question concerned respondents’ lived experience – recognising that the questions we had asked did not necessarily afford the space to contextualise opinions within that experience.

A strand of responses in both our open questions flagged different axes of inclusion/exclusion that some respondents felt are frequently overlooked in the EDI debate – socio-economic class, disability, age, caring experience (childcare and other forms of care), and international status were noted, as was the perception of differential treatment of academic and professional staff in higher education.

These comments reflect the gap between compliance with EDI legislation, which is concerned with a discrete group of defined protected characteristics, and wider perception of discrimination and unfairness that filter lived experience, some of which may be to do with protected characteristics but in other cases may be to do with the intersections between them, or with interactions or cultures specific to a particular environment, such as higher education.

While we can’t share every comment we received, the below selection gives some indication of both the progress that has been made, the work that remains to be done, and the necessity of grasping the complexity of lived experience to build a truly inclusive higher education sector.

As a queer autistic woman, my experience has been that people only want you to focus on one of your ‘characteristics’ at a time and are terrified of needing to be inclusive of more than one thing at a time.

Being a woman sucks. Being a mum sucks more. Being an ‘old woman’ sucks the hardest. Discrimination occurs during our entire careers.

Feels like some people are more equal than others. As a woman I’ve experienced harassment and bullying.

As an early career academic, I would have welcomed more open conversations about inappropriate behaviours from some colleagues, and a facility through which such could be reported. We still lack whistle-blowing mechanisms and safety protocols.

Carers of children (mainly parents) are usually well considered (even if not ultimately fully served) in decision making but carers for adult and elderly relatives seem to be missing.

As a queer disabled woman, working in higher education the past few years has been amazing. Which is why I’ve stayed. I feel comfortable being me.

For me personally as an LGBT+ cis man, the university has been the most supportive employer I’ve ever had.

As a mother of young children and a senior leader I am supported to work flexible hours and we are moving towards meetings during core hours etc BUT they’re are still many who are part of a previous era and don’t understand the dual life I choose to lead.

As a single mother, I’ve felt that I’ve had to hide my struggles to appear competent. It is something that I am unfortunately used to – need to work twice as hard to get half as far and do so with a smile on your face and no complaining.

I am a black woman. I am called upon to tick the equality boxes but when I suggest something tangible to positively impact the race inequalities, I am ignored or shut down.

As somebody with a disability, my experience in my new team has been so much more positive than in my previous team where I was asked to justify and prove that I needed any adjustments and still didn’t get any. I work in the same building within the same section of the university. My lived experience should not differ as much as it has.

My voice (female and disabled) is not being heard by managers – very much a “boys club” that are active in sport. I feel like I’m screaming inside a sealed box.

I have personally been “managed” out of a job due to disability issues my employer was unable and unwilling to accommodate, I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this.

I suffer with poor mental health and support from work has improved massively in the last few years.

As a straight white middle class middle aged male in HE I have seen clear examples of inequality for recruitment and recognition to women and BAME colleagues in HE that wouldn’t happen in other public sector organisations.

I am both from an ethnic minority background and a background of poverty and homelessness. The latter was (and is) a far, far greater struggle to overcome than the former.

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. We’ll discuss leadership, intersectionality, inclusion – and hear from the people who are making it happen on the ground. Find out more and get your ticket.

One response to “Wonkhe community survey 2021: equality, diversity, and inclusion

  1. Thankfully we have yet to follow the US down the Equity rabbit hole, yet with the pattern of ‘lived experienced’ victimhood olympics still seeming to be gaining traction for how much longer will that be the case?

    Having grown up in a communist household I can only echo Professor Michael Vanyukov’s thoughts on this, and where this is assuredly leading:

    As I’m a disabled mixed race bi-sexual where do I qualify in the victim olympics standings chart? Am I a victim? Or am I an oppressor? Or does that vary with context?

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