Action to improve diversity and inclusion for Black students and staff

Where should action to improve equity, diversity and inclusion within universities be focused in order to have a tangible impact? Christina Dzineku and Patrice Sewou explain

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Leeds Trinity University,University of Northampton
2 Dec 2022
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Higher education can transform lives, especially for people from ethnic and culturally diverse backgrounds. However, managing commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) for staff and students by higher education institutions presents significant challenges. Racial harassment and discrimination continue to bubble under the surface, so there is a need to reinforce efforts and initiatives on EDI for higher education providers.

Inclusion refers to diverse backgrounds being valued in a group or by an institution, and this requires awareness of differences and privileges as a pre-requisite.

When universities develop and implement policies and practices to advance EDI, there is a risk that the actions will mask, but not confront, the structures that perpetuate inequalities. Academics of colour work harder than their White colleagues, and they are often given a more significant workload and overlooked for promotion opportunities, according to social justice scholar Kalwant Bhopal.

Too often, EDI initiatives become a "tick-box exercise" where senior managers want to be seen to be doing something, but there is no real impact. They are often used to increase the public profile of the university. The purpose of this article is not to regurgitate the decades-long experiences of Black students and staff but rather to focus on solutions. The time for words is past; now is the time for action. Here are three areas where action can lead to change:

1. EDI training

The problem with traditional training programmes for university staff has been a focus on imparting knowledge without providing practical tools to help university colleagues to align their behaviours with their values. Ethnic minority staff willing to share their experiences can broaden a White colleague's knowledge and perspective. Asking White individuals to initiate conversations about race and race-related experiences with a colleague of colour opens up conversations, so people who may feel threatened by change can share their worries, too.

To ensure it feels safe and takes sensitivity into account, this could be done through mentoring schemes such as reverse mentoring or reciprocal mentoring, bringing in experts when necessary to reinforce organisation values, making plans informed by employee voice and, more importantly, ensuring that the conversation is two ways.

The LARA approach – listen, affirm, respond and ask questions – is a valuable tool in allyship work, both for receiving feedback about one’s behaviour and opinions and for engaging colleagues whose understanding of equality is in its early stages. The LARA method should also be included in face-to-face EDI training because it builds respect and common ground among people in conversation, allowing you to explore your differences more openly and honestly. LARA is especially useful when people feel that their hot buttons have been activated, that is, when certain behaviours in others upset or irritate them.

Face-to-face practical training for all staff on cultural awareness, racism and unconscious bias will ensure that those working within higher education take racist complaints seriously and meet the objectives of the race equality charter, Equality Act 2010 legislation, and the institution’s EDI policies.

2. Reviewing EDI policy

Most senior staff lack the training, knowledge and experience in racial harassment and discrimination to deal with complaints appropriately. “This lack of knowledge means that many universities struggle to understand the extent to which racial harassment is harming the mental health and well-being of their students and staff, undermining student retention and attainment and affecting the career development and progression of their staff”, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission report Tackling Racial Harassment: Universities Challenged. This means that too often, no action is taken to challenge the behaviour. Everyone across an institution must be encouraged to adhere to the university’s anti-racism statement and EDI policies to minimise discrimination and harassment.

But to facilitate this, institutions need a transparent and supportive process for reporting, documenting and dealing with incidences raised formally (that is, adhering to grievance procedures) and informally (such as mediation between victim and perpetrator).

Some institutions have cited the low number of formal complaints as evidence of the effectiveness of their policies; others point to initiatives such as the deployment of dignity advisers to support alleged victims. However, in both cases, this is misleading. Such policies fail to address the root causes of racial harassment and discriminatory behaviours and systems, focusing instead on addressing the outcomes.

To address the root causes, institutions should consider building EDI work into professional development and career metrics, embedding aspects of the work into promotion criteria, providing funding pots for academic staff willing to embark on this type of research, and valuing research output in this field. It is essential to continuously track the impact and effectiveness of the policies implemented through questionnaires and focus groups, and design procedures to update, review and refine them rather than assuming they are working well without tangible results.

3. The Race Equality Charter

The Race Equality Charter provides institutions with a framework to guide their efforts towards racial equality. It is vital that these efforts are embedded across a whole institution from senior management down and do not end up disproportionately falling on ethnic minority staff. University leadership must commit to ensuring that the race equality policy guidelines are applied correctly. More guidance to join the Race Equality Charter can be found here.

EDI work should be a core consideration for academic promotion and included in appointment criteria. It is important to ensure that panel membership includes staff with protected characteristics. The expertise of the panel members should cover the broad spectrum of academic life. EDI should be included in professional development targets, recognising this work alongside teaching, management, research, enterprise, external engagement and institutional citizenship. It is important to recognise that EDI work is the shared responsibility of everyone within the institution, as diversity brings more creativity and better performance.

Senior leaders in the academy must lead by example and make things happen by setting SMART workforce objectives – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound – and measuring performance against these aims. This could be done by asking senior management team members to all make a pledge on how they would personally champion EDI-related schemes within their area of responsibility, setting EDI-related objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) as part of the institution’s long-term performance and staff annual performance appraisals. This, alongside a reward system, for example, promotion or time off, can provide a motivation tool for change. An employee reward system can improve employee productivity, motivation and satisfaction.

But is this approach sufficient to bring about meaningful transformation? White senior staff need to question who holds authority in the academy and whose well-being is being compromised for the comfort of others.

Christina Dzineku is a university teacher and college liaison tutor at Leeds Trinity University; Patrice Seuwou is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Northampton.

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