Fair enough? Why equality and diversity matters

HEFCE has just restated its commitment to advancing equality and diversity across the higher education sector in England.

Its latest ‘Equality and Diversity Statement and Objectives’ sets out priorities for the next two years.

This covers equality among staff, students and governing bodies. It also encompasses key policy areas, such as social mobility, funding for research and monitoring compliance with the Prevent duty.

Beyond the letter of the law

But why do we see this as a priority? On the one hand, it’s our legal obligation.

HEFCE is a named public authority in the 2010 Equality Act, which means that we are subject to the public sector equality duty.

This duty makes it clear that we should take active steps to eliminate discrimination, promote equality of opportunity, and foster good relations between different groups.

But is support for equality and diversity in the sector really just a matter of legal compliance?

No doubt some will see it in this way, so much so that it leaves them with a sceptical squint. Does, for example, equalities legislation bring with it a large dollop of form-filling flummery, or flourishes of outward compliance which fail to connect with the deeper issues behind the legislation?

And some go further still, suggesting that work in this area impedes the sector. Most recently, we have seen claims that the pressure to recruit students from minority backgrounds is affecting the international standing of English higher education.

At HEFCE, we take a different view. We believe that there are clear and positive reasons to support work in this area, beyond passive compliance with the law.

Not only that, we also believe that there is a strong base of evidence to suggest that greater diversity in the sector improves its overall performance.

A question of talent

So what does our positive engagement with equality and diversity look like? Two important tenets underpin it. The first of these is the so-called ‘business case’.

This comes down to a straightforward argument: to develop human capital and expand the knowledge base as efficiently as possible, higher education institutions must draw on all available talent. As it stands, gaps in participation and performance highlight wells of potential knowledge that are not being tapped.

Opening up higher education to a wider range of people makes the sector more efficient because diverse communities produce better results. A growing body of literature from the corporate world supports this line of thinking.

In 2015, the management consultants, McKinsey, published the results from a large-scale analysis, which looked at the impact of boardroom diversity on business performance. It showed that gender and ethnic diversity in boardrooms leads to better results for the business.

So, far from a hindrance, we have good reason to think that diverse and inclusive organisations are more productive.

Social justice

Second, we believe there is a case for social justice, based on the principle that equal treatment should be hard-wired into the higher education sector.

Institutional leaders shared this view when they were interviewed for the Equality Challenge Unit’s 2014 report, ‘The rationale for equality and diversity: How vice-chancellors and principals are leading change’.

As one vice-chancellor put it, ‘the saddest thought is that there are bright talented people who fail to reach their potential. It is also a social disaster’.

HEFCE’s commitment

HEFCE is uniquely placed to support the sector in addressing inequalities and ensuring that staff and students are treated fairly. This is recognised in our Business Plan 2015-2020, and articulated in our new objectives.

The way we see our role in this area is to guide, encourage and test that equality and diversity challenges are being proactively addressed by the sector.

To take diversity in governance and senior leadership as an example, we play a facilitating role by convening a group of sector body chairs and chief executive to coordinate actions to tackle imbalances in these areas.

This approach seems to be working. For example, we are already seeing positive movement toward our 40 per cent target for women on university governing bodies, with the percentage in 2016 up to 36 per cent from 32 per cent in 2012.

Supported by our strong rationale, we are optimistic that our new equality objectives represents a programme of work that can lead to similar examples of tangible progress over the coming years.