Posted tagged ‘diversity’

Gender in higher education: the contribution of governance

April 14, 2015

As a guest post on this blog recently explored, and as I’ve also noted previously, the higher education scene is not necessarily one of good practice in relation to gender equality. Women make up an increasingly large proportion of the academic community overall, but are still seriously under-represented in senior positions.

However it is not just employment practices in universities that deserve scrutiny, but also governance. In the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12, we found that women were not well represented on governing bodies, and as a result we made the following recommendation:

‘The panel therefore recommends that each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.’

This was picked up in the Code of Good Governance issued by the Committee of Scottish Chairs in July 2013, which included a wider principle of respect for equality and diversity, and a specific reference to equality goals for the independent membership of governing bodies:

‘The governing body, having due regard to applicable law, shall establish appropriate goals and policies in regard to the balance of its independent members in terms of equality and diversity.’

The chairs have now extended this commitment in a policy statement issued this month, with the following commitment:

‘[The chairs of governing bodies] will aim to achieve, on a timescale which may vary according to the circumstances of each Institution, a minimum of 40 percent of each gender among the independent members of the governing body; and will measure success by the extent to which this has been achieved for the sector by 2018.’

The commitment does not cover members elected by staff or students or nominated by external stakeholders, though these are encouraged to address the diversity commitment also.

How significant is this as an issue? I am pleased to say that since we assessed Scottish governing bodies in 2011 there has been some improvement. Most university governing bodies now have 30 per cent or more women members. The best in class is the University of Edinburgh, 51 per cent of whose Court members are women. A number of governing bodies (including my own) now have women chairs (of whom there were none previously). Scotland may be fact be out-performing other systems in these islands. A significant number of English universities score below 25 per cent, and most of the better performers are in the 30-35 per cent range. The same is true of Ireland, with Trinity College Dublin however managing 41 per cent (in what is largely an internal membership). The National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), which recently has been in the spotlight for gender equality reasons, has a governing body 36 per cent of whose members are women.

Of course gender (and indeed diversity more generally) is not the only criterion to apply, but it is important, if we want to say with any credibility that universities are representative of the wider population and its aspirations, that governing bodies reflect this understanding. There is still some way to go, but there has been progress.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the criticism that the university establishments have tended to direct at my governance review, it is gratifying to see that we have had a perceptible impact.


Higher education diversity

July 29, 2010

One crucial issue facing Irish higher education over the next while will be institutional diversity. Broadly the question goes like this: we are a small country, so why do we need seven universities that cover more or less the same territory, and a dozen or so institutes with the same mission, and some other colleges? Why not identify a specialism for each and then ensure they are the best they could be in that area? Or maybe, why not identify one or two all-rounder institutions, with everyone else occupying a niche?

At one level this direction could only be travelled if we were to have a wholly dirigiste system of national strategic management of the sector. If we were to specialise in this way, someone would have to direct this process, because it is unlikely that bilateral or multilateral discussions between the institutions themselves would achieve this. On the other hand, if we all occupy the same space, it may be that we cannot achieve national critical mass at all in some key areas, because the expertise would be excessively diluted between colleges.

In some ways DCU might find this discussion easier than some, because it, alone of the Irish universities, has pursued niche status. It has not sought to have a presence across all the major disciplines, and does not address a number of key subject areas that other universities might find indispensable. But of course this position has been reached by an autonomous process of strategic planning within the university, rather than being an output of a national plan.

It is my view that the institutions should collaborate much more to distribute provision in areas where too much duplication does not seem sensible. But I have no faith that a better distribution can be worked out by national agencies, necessarily dominated by civil servants. In the end, autonomy has to trump all that, because it is the guarantor of excellence; but within that autonomy, the institutions should be looking much more openly at the possibilities of adjusting provision, and through that process, ensuring a level of diversity that will in fact be attractive to our external supporters.

The race card

June 7, 2010

Much of the law and best practice that has been adopted in these islands relating to discrimination and diversity has its origins in the United States. American legislation, much of it adopted during the Lyndon B Johnson presidency, defined a fair amount of legal reform in this part of the world, and US pressure groups pushing for equal rights set the tone for others across the world. And yet, in some respects America also still has more people openly undermining equality and diversity than almost anywhere else.

The most recent example of this is to be found in political infighting in the US Republican party. In the developing election campaign for Governor of South Carolina, Republican candidate Nikki Haley – a woman of Sikh descent – has been criticised in extraordinary terms by a state senator from her own party, Jake Knotts. Here is what he has been reported as saying:

‘We already got one raghead in the White House; we don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.’

What is amazing is that such overtly racist talk can be accepted as part of the rough and tumble of electoral politics, and that, apparently, no attempt is being made to prosecute Mr Knotts. For many people all over the world, the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency showed the growing political maturity of America and gave heart to the movement for equal rights. However, this is undermined to quite an extent by the extreme racist discourse of many of those on the right in US politics, in political debate and on the airwaves. There should be no tolerance for such talk. The last bit of growing up still remains to be completed.

Our mission is – well, what?

January 18, 2009

During the recent strategic planning exercise in Dublin City University, I did a presentation in which I set out a number of mission statements from a variety of universities. Some of the universities were old – ancient, indeed – some were new, some were teaching-intensive, some research intensive, some were in major cities, some served sparsely population regions. I produced the mission statements, and in a separate order, the names of the universities; I then asked those present to see whether they could correctly link the universities to their missions. And of course they couldn’t – these statements were entirely interchangeable. They all said they wanted their institution to be as good as you could imagine in teaching, research, community engagement and innovation; or some such stuff. Some were able to say this quite snappily, some needed several paragraphs and long words.

What does this suggest? It could suggest, as one person suggested at my presentation, that nobody should bother with such stuff anyway; mission statements are put together without much imagination, and probably as an after-thought to strategic planning, rather than as a foundation for it. Or it could suggest that, despite all claims to the contrary, in the end all universities have a very similar mission, and the differentiating factor is not what they do, but how good they are at doing it. That would be bad news for DCU, as we have built up our profile based on the assertion that we are different. But if you ask DCU people what that difference consists of, the answer often is that we innovate and introduce things before others do – that we lead the way in pursuing change. That is of course good, but it doesn’t make us different; it means we do the same things, just earlier.

In the case of DCU, there are in fact some clear differences, and our strategic plan will develop that thinking a little more in an explicit way. But all this does raise the question whether the assertion that a university sector should contain some diversity is actually well founded. Is it really true that, let’s say in the UK, Cambridge University is different from the University of Lincoln in any way that cannot be explained by age, resources and influence? In other words, in the ideal world of each, would they be doing something radically different from each other?

Universities often repeat the mantra of diversity, but do we really know what that should require of us? And if we did discover a real basis for differentiation, would all of those seeking a different mission enjoy the respect of those who stick with a more traditional agenda? These are important questions which, I believe, university strategic planners do not properly examine, and to which I suspect they do not have an answer. It is a topic to which I shall return in due course, perhaps when we have published our plan.

Equality and diversity in universities

June 25, 2008

Twenty years ago I was asked by the Conference of University Personnel Administrators (which covers the UK and Ireland) to address their annual gathering then taking place in Dublin on the topic of equality. I told them that, in my view, universities were full of people with liberal credentials and a commitment to fairness and equality; and yet the evidence was that they were amongst the very worst organisations when it came to equal opportunities. This was not only because of unenlightened management, but also because individual academics often behaved in a way that made real equality almost impossible to achieve. So while academics working on discrimination and equality issues often focused on industry as the place where most change was needed, my argument was that in the case of universities we’re not that different after all.

Twenty years on, and what has changed? Some of the statistics are now better, though nothing to be excessively proud of. More women and members of minorities are making it into senior positions. In DCU for example, half the members of my senior management team are women, including the Deputy President. However, there is still plenty of evidence of a glass ceiling, and of a rather macho culture that tends to pervade the organisation at many levels. An equality audit commissioned by DCU a few years ago revealed a number of issues we have needed to address, while also indicating that at some levels we had made some progress.

There is a good deal of evidence that equality and diversity issues are still a major problem for society – although the problem is much more complex than we would have thought in the 1980s. So for example, we are facing a pattern of serious under-achievement by young males at school and in early adulthood, which may create both gender imbalances and also potentially serious social problems. This phenomenon must on the other hand be set alongside the absence of a sufficient number of women and members of ethnic and other minorities in leadership positions. How easy it will be to maintain a stable and just society in such circumstances is something we have not given enough attention to.

In the meantime, universities often maintain a working environment which is unnecessarily aggressive and intolerant – as academics are used to defending their positions in strong terms. This often produces a particularly stressful environment which is not conducive to diversity. Whether university managements always set the right tone could also be debated.

Equality and diversity are important not just because they are morally right, but also because they are efficient and generate a creative environment. Universities must seek to be role models in this agenda. We are not close to that yet.