Fairness lies within

January 26, 2001

Cambridge's internal equality audit could be a model for higher education, says Gill Jackson.

The government is well known for its commitment to widening access to our leading universities and to increasing diversity. As a consequence, it is keen to ensure that higher education institutions internally review their equality and diversity policies and practices and take steps to develop a more inclusive culture.

In November 1999, the secretary of state for education and employment wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England and told it to ensure that all institutions have equal opportunities policy statements and are held accountable for their full and proper implementation.

The recent document Higher Education and Equality: A Guide endorses this stance and states that "the policy action plan should include explicit arrangements for collecting and monitoring data and evaluation".

Much of the effort so far has been focused on collecting statistical data related to the profile of university staff and students. While this is important, it gives only a snapshot of one dimension of equality. It tells us little about the experiences of those who work and study at university, or about the steps needed to develop a more inclusive culture. Few universities have qualitative data available that tell them about what their internal culture is really like.

For the past decade or so, Cambridge has worked towards continuous improvement on equality issues, but it recognised the need to give greater direction to these efforts. It has therefore undertaken a comprehensive audit of its staff, together with Schneider-Ross, a consultancy that specialises in equality and diversity issues. The audit aimed to:

* Identify the strengths and challenges of the current position on equality in employment

* Identify key areas for change

* Present practical proposals for addressing the priorities.

The audit process, led by a steering group consisting of representatives from a range of staff groups and chaired by Brian Johnson, professor of chemistry and master of Fitzwilliam College, is one of the first to be conducted in a higher education institution and could provide a model for the sector.

It comprised: an opinion survey of every member of staff; a selection of staff interviews; group discussions to seek the views of particular staff groups, for example, women, ethnic minority and disabled staff; a review of the data available on the workforce profile; and a review of the university's equality policies. More than 3,000 staff replied to the questionnaire alone, representing an encouragingly high 40 per cent response.

The resulting report, Equality in the University - Setting a New Agenda , is published on January 30. While some of the outcomes of the audit are, as anticipated, hard-hitting, the report identifies a number of strengths as well as challenges. The strengths at Cambridge include a high level of staff satisfaction at the university. More than two-thirds of staff surveyed view Cambridge as a good employer, and the same proportion feel fairly treated and valued by their colleagues. These findings are in line with benchmark data for other organisations.

However, the audit highlighted the fact that different groups of staff reported very different pictures of their experiences of working at Cambridge. One of the key challenges identified by the audit is the need to develop leadership skills further, to ensure that all staff are supported in making the best use of their talent and are made to feel valued.

In his annual speech to the Regent House last October, vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers once again emphasised his commitment to achieving equal opportunities at Cambridge and endorsed the need to address this challenge. "The key to making progress (on equal opportunities) is improving the way we manage ourselves," he said.

Some of the outcomes of the audit have relevance for the higher education sector as a whole. The research assessment exercise was seen by many staff at Cambridge to have "done more to hold back good practice in equal opportunities than any other thing". In recruitment and selection exercises, it was seen to have resulted in an over-emphasis being placed on "how much research money the applicant can attract", leading to a reduction in the importance of other key skills, such as wider management and people skills, and the ability to teach.

Overall, the Cambridge report concludes with detailed recommendations for change. A steering group will continue to lead the implementation of these recommendations, which will be used to guide the next phase of the university's work on equality issues.

Gill Jackson is senior consultant at Schneider-Ross, diversity and equality consultants.

The report will be published at: www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/personnel/equality/

* What can universities do to improve equality? Email soapbox@thes.co.uk

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