By Dr Diane Bebbington
Senior academics – those who make up the professoriate – are still nowhere near as diverse as the students who attend their universities. Almost three-quarters of all professors working in UK universities are white men and fewer than 2% are women from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds1.
Kingston University had been worried about the lack of diversity at the senior academic level for some time, said Nona McDuff, head of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the university. The difference in the demographic profile between students and staff is particularly apparent at Kingston where over 50% of students describe themselves as “non-white”.
"The lack of diversity in professorial roles has been a top agenda item not only for the equality and diversity committee, but also the people committee which is part of our board of governors. Kingston’s data shows that we have a definite underrepresentation of female and BME staff in professorial roles," said Nona. She explained that many of the women who took part in a gender equality survey at Kingston felt that their work in higher education institutions tended to centre around professional practice or teaching and learning rather than research, the latter being a more typical route to professorship.
This seemingly intractable problem was identified as an “equality challenge” by Kingston’s EDI team. It led to the development of a more strategic approach, which went on to win the Guardian University Award for best diversity initiative in March this year.
The main aim of the project was to embed equality and diversity into the new academic framework that was being introduced by the university. This provided an opportunity to address a variety of challenges Kingston was facing, which included not only the lack of diversity among the professoriate but also other issues such as difficulties achieving more equitable degree attainment across different student groups. These are, of course, problems the whole higher education sector faces.
A core change that the project made was to introduce equality considerations into the role profiles of each grade. Nona explained: “When the roles were being developed we put in keywords. We said, ‘You are expected to deliver innovative curricula to a diverse student body’. So rather than having a statement at the bottom of every job description saying ‘We have a commitment to equality and diversity’ we put it into learning and teaching. This raised the expectation that staff would perform their academic duties taking into account the diversity of their students and staff.”
Workshops on preparing applications for the Associate Professor (AP) grade were held on all university sites and were open to Grade 10 staff. The application process was explained by the Human Resources project lead with Nona describing the kind of evidence staff should incorporate into their applications, using practical examples. Staff were asked, for instance, whether they had put any strategies in place to create an inclusive environment to support the university’s REF submission or made changes to the way in which disabled students’ placements were handled. Also, had they reviewed and evaluated the profiles of students’ results and what changes did that make to their practice?
In Nona’s view, translating equality into this very practical approach was key to the strategy’s success: “Across the sector EDI is often seen as very intangible and difficult to translate into the practical life of a university. Academic career frameworks are the nuts and bolts of the university; we can get better credibility for our work by showing how we can embed equality and diversity into the university and help it achieve its business goals.”
A critical factor in the success of the project was the strong support it had from the university’s leadership. It was initiated by the vice-chancellor and had backing from the senior management team. This support was visible in the workshops: “The pro vice-chancellor for education stood up in every workshop and said ‘Equality and diversity is at the heart of what we do, given our staff and student base. Therefore our academic career framework has to achieve equality’.”
Following the workshops – there were nine in total with around 20 people attending each one – the EDI team analysed all the applications for the AP role. They found that 50% of the applications made reference to equality and diversity, with some specifically mentioning Kingston’s equality and diversity strategy. They then looked at the success rate of applications made and found there was no difference in the proportional success rates of staff based on their gender or ethnicity, or whether or not they had a disability.
Nona feels that, following on from this initiative, the university can expect to see the talent pipeline expand: “It widened the scope to become a professor through different routes including teaching and learning and professional practice.”
Another important outcome of the project was that it made the university’s expectations around equality and diversity far more explicit, with good practice in this area recognised as being critical to academic success. It was this that made the project innovative.
Dr Diane Bebbington, Diversity Advisor, Leadership Foundation
Nona McDuff is head of equality, diversity and inclusion, Kingston University. Her research interests include: impact and organisational development; sector leadership; BME staff and student attainment; and gender equality. She is also a member of Kingston’s Diversity and Inclusion Research Unit which brings together researchers with different methodological approaches and areas of expertise, who put emphasis on academic rigour and practical application, using qualitative and quantitative research strategies, and focusing on various facets of diversity.
Nona McDuff’s learning points for higher education leaders
Diane Bebbington took up the role of Diversity Advisor to the Leadership Foundation in 2007. She has been working in the area of equality for many years.
Most recently her focus has been on higher education and in particular, diversity and higher education leadership. Diane has worked on many national, European and international projects including for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Equality Challenge Unit, the Department of Trade and Industry, the University of Cambridge, the Athena Project and Roehampton University/European Commission.
She has a PhD in sociology from the University of London’s Institute of Education and an MSc in human communication from City University.