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Advancing equality and diversity in universities and colleges


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Leading change: starting from the top

David Ruebain, chief executive of ECU considers the role of leaders in driving the diversity agenda.

Achieving equality and diversity through changing your institution’s culture and practices takes time. Meaningful change requires strong leadership and an understanding that equality is an integral part of a university’s mission.

Active leadership is a critical component of effective change management: our research and experiences with universities reiterates again and again that support from the highest level within an institution is necessary in order to create the impetus for change and to drive its implementation.

To make a real difference, we need committed and active champions leading the way. We need to ensure conversations about equality and diversity take place across institutions, at all levels. We also need to work together across the sector, pooling our knowledge and resources to maximise change.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s diversity summit is a fantastic example of this. It brings together key sector agencies: the Committee of University Chairs, Guild HE, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association and Universities UK to develop a shared response to the lack of diversity at senior management, leadership and governance.

As part of that work, we wanted to look at why some universities and some senior leaders are more successful in advancing equality and diversity than others. Our summit partners were keen to explore what made these institutions stand out from the crowd: what drives these leaders to become proactive and public champions of equality and diversity?

Today, ECU has released research to answer this question. Each of the twelve interviews with vice-chancellors and principals tells a powerful story of values enacted, challenges encountered and lessons learned. Carried out by Schneider~Ross Ltd, the report strongly reinforces the idea that these 12 leaders take equality and diversity seriously and as an integral part of being an excellent institution. For those interviewed, there is no debate: a university that didn’t value staff or student diversity simply couldn’t be excellent. 

Our research findings also give a real insight into the motivations and drivers that prompt senior leaders in HE to become visible and active champions of equality and diversity – whether it was institutional impetus such as attracting the best staff and students from around the world, or their own personal experiences that had shaped their commitment.

We hope that this will inspire other vice-chancellors to share their personal commitment to equality when they speak publically about their institution. I hope that chairs of governing bodies will take an increasingly active interest in these issues and ensure diversity is embedded in the values of the institution. I also hope that more institutions will widely publicise their own unique case for diversity.