Bold action pays off for THE Awards 2020 winners

Institutions rewarded for getting ahead of the curve on key issues facing UK sector

January 6, 2021
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Major organisations across the world have clamoured to show that they are taking action against racial injustice in the wake of the protests that swept America and beyond after the killing of George Floyd.

This has sometimes been accompanied by the criticism that they have simply been jumping on a PR bandwagon and should have been more active in addressing some of the issues that the Black Lives Matter movement has been highlighting for years.

However, the winner of the Times Higher Education University of Year title, the University of Glasgow, is one institution that can legitimately claim not to be slow off the mark.

In 2016, it commissioned a study to explore its historic relationship with slavery, with the resulting Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report quantifying its financial gains from such links and recommending a programme of reparations.

The £20 million it has now invested as a result has helped to establish a host of projects, including a Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research with the University of the West Indies (UWI), scholarships for ethnic minority students and a far-reaching programme of research collaboration focused on the Global South.

Glasgow principal Sir Anton Muscatelli said the decision to fully investigate how the institution had benefited from the slave trade was made all the more important because “we had always presented ourselves as a progressive force in the 19th and 18th centuries through our role in the anti-slavery movement”.

Among other things, this included an abolitionist stance and the education of James McCune Smith, a Glasgow alumnus born into slavery who became the first African American in the world to be awarded a medical degree. His name is now the title of new scholarships for black and ethnic minority undergraduates at Glasgow.

“We all took a view that if we presented ourselves as a progressive university that had this positive role, we needed to investigate the darker corners of our past: investigating the less palatable history that nobody knew anything about because it was buried in our archives,” Sir Anton said.

He added that an important aspect of the approach has been to strive for reparative justice for the black community in a way that helps to change the present.

“It is not about rewriting history in a kind of a transactional way, looking at how we benefited, the kind of reparations-type approach. Reparative justice is different; it is about doing something now for the future which changes the world for the better, and not something that undoes the past, which is impossible anyway,” he said.

One key aspect of this is working with institutions in the Global South such as UWI in a way that will “benefit them more, hopefully, than it does us” and avoiding the potential imbalances that such relationships have had in the past.

Rachel Sandison, vice-principal for external relations at Glasgow, said the wider reparative justice work had also served to “open up conversations” within the university on other issues related to race.

“For us, this is both about diversity and inclusion. This is not just about BAME [black and minority ethnic] students coming to the University of Glasgow but actually feeling like they are a full participating member of our community – that they are visible, that they are heard,” she said.

Glasgow is now advising others in the sector on how to carry out such work, and Ms Sandison said that if organisations do decide to investigate their past links to slavery it was important not to hold back.

“I think you have to be bold. There is absolutely no point in undertaking this work and then not being completely open, honest and transparent about what you find,” she said.

“This is about telling the story about your past. But far more importantly, it is about telling the story about your present and your future, and this work allows you to shape that.”

Most Innovative Teacher of the Year

For Judith Francois, it was watching a student’s slow descent from getting As to failing her course that led the senior lecturer in clinical leadership at Kingston University to develop her toolkit for creating a more inclusive curriculum, one that teaches students self-efficacy and resilience.

“We were having all the normal conversations with her – ‘What’s happening?’, ‘Are you OK?’ – but eventually it got to the stage where her grades were so bad, and she wasn’t submitting on time, that she was basically off the programme,” Ms Francois explained. “Despite so many conversations, it wasn't until the eleventh hour that it eventually came out how huge her personal problems were. I realised we were doing something wrong…we needed to have a different conversation.”

To facilitate that, she built a framework that uses pictures to allow students to explain how they are feeling and how their current circumstances affect what they are able to do.

Her work has since been applied elsewhere across the university: a storytelling workshop aimed at first-year undergraduates allows black and minority ethnic (BAME) students to explore how their backgrounds influenced their experiences and, ultimately, to increase their sense of belonging. It has also been incorporated into the development of a leadership programme for ethnic minority NHS staff aimed at reducing the paucity of nurses from these backgrounds in management positions.

“It’s inclusive because it allows students to tell their stories,” Ms Francois said. “Rather than just focusing on how to get their grade up…it recognises that there is more that impacts their studies.

“From that one student, I was able to benefit other students who might have been in a similar situation to hopefully prevent that from happening again,” she said.

Anna McKie

Outstanding Support for Students

One of the challenges of addressing harassment at universities is convincing people that rises in disclosure rates are a positive development, according to the winner of the Outstanding Support for Students award.

Nottingham Trent University picked up the prize for raising the agenda of harassment, hate crime and violence against women across its campuses and beyond. One outcome of its initiative was that disclosures of instances of these abuses shot up from 20 in 2015-16 to 141 in 2018-19.

“That is where we had to work quite hard and say, ‘This is a good thing,’” said Sara Baldwin, head of student support services at the institution. “It’s a good thing because it shows us [those instances] were there all the time, and now we’re able to support those students.”

She added that the retention and progression rates of NTU students after they disclosed an instance of sexual violence were about 80 per cent, demonstrating that the right support can remove barriers to learning.

The project included the creation of a specialist team including new posts such as a sexual violence project officer, a hate crime project officer and a network of sexual violence liaison officers. This was supplemented by a zero-tolerance sexual violence policy, a film on that theme that was shared in classes and on social media, workshops on consent and bystander intervention, a sexual violence awareness week and a student signposting guide.

Next year, the university plans to roll out “interesting, informative and empowering” consent training to all first-year students.

Ellie Bothwell

Outstanding Contribution to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

For David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, culture was central to all the achievements that won his institution this year’s award.

“We established a culture that [regards] discrimination against people based on their sex, their colour or their impairment [as] fundamentally disgusting,” he explained. By embracing that core value, staff had helped to spur major change.

When an eight-year-old boy who needed a stick to walk told a lecturer in sports science that he wanted to play football, for example, the academic told him to come back a week later and devised a way to make it possible. The university has gone on to become the first to host the biennial European wheelchair basketball championships and to co-host, in 2019, the inaugural Physical Disability Cricket World Cup.

Similar values had been applied, Professor Green went on, when the university went well beyond legal requirements in ensuring that new halls of residence gave “any student in a wheelchair the ability to visit their friend on the fourth floor, get into the bedroom and turn round under their own steam”. Last year also saw the conclusion of a major 12-month transgender education and support programme.

A commitment to gender equality ran equally deep. Professor Green pointed to initiatives such as “regularly monitoring the employment life cycle of our staff”, which had ensured that “women are neither under-represented at the top nor over-represented at the bottom” of the pay scale.

Matthew Reisz

Outstanding Technician of the Year

The use of animals in university-run laboratories is always a contentious topic, with more than 1 million animals killed annually on UK campuses for scientific purposes. But the sudden shutdown of laboratories in late March as researchers were asked to stay at home put the issue firmly under the spotlight; many research centres had to cull hundreds of mice when biomedical research projects were suspended, with remaining animals cared for by laboratory technicians.

This year’s Outstanding Technician of the Year – John Waters, chief animal technician at the University of Liverpool – has been heavily involved with this sensitive situation of managing animal welfare in lockdown, when the issue has been more than important than ever.

His 30-year record in improving animal welfare in university laboratories stood him in good stead, having helped, for instance, to develop new methods for replacing the anxiety-inducing tail-handling method that was routinely used in labs worldwide before his team’s research. These more humane handling methods are now being shared widely by Mr Waters, helping to reduce the anxiety and distress faced by millions of animals across the world. He has also co-authored a number of training resources to help other technicians.

Judges described Mr Waters as a “sterling example of an outstanding technician” who had “made an enormous contribution to animal technology, developing and disseminating best practice in animal welfare and supporting and advocating the roles of animal technicians across the UK and beyond”. “The impact he has made throughout his career, locally, nationally and internationally is undeniable,” they concluded.

Jack Grove


Print headline: Bold actions win fitting caps

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