Making a difference to difference

James Morris was born in 1926, and was educated at an English public school and Oxford before serving in the Queen’s Royal Lancers toward the end of the Second World War. In 1953, he was the journalist attached to the expedition which conquered Everest. His account of Hillary and Tenzing’s historic ascent was memorably published on the morning of Elizabeth II’s coronation. In the early 1970s, he completed gender re-assignment surgery, and as Jan Morris completed a sequence of dazzling travel and history books; the Pax Britannica trilogy on the British Empire, begun as James and completed as Jan, catches all the ambiguities and challenges of the imperial experience. In 2008, Jan entered a civil partnership with Elizabeth, the wife James had been obliged under the law to divorce at the time of surgery. Living in a remote corner of Wales, she is an ardent Welsh nationalist.

Jan Morris with early Everest climbers (photo: Noel Dawson)

Jan Morris with early Everest climbers (photo: Noel Dawson)

Jan’s story is a story of diversity within one person, an individual journey: travel makes the perfect subject for her. Her book Contact! is one of my favourites; it’s a collection of very brief encounters, all over the world, each recorded with Jan’s keen observation, acerbic wit and deep generosity of spirit. If anyone should be a symbol of our age, it may be Jan Morris – encapsulating as she does something powerful about identity, self, journey, exploration and discovery.

Difference matters to universities because we are at root concerned with potential, with where people might be going and how they can be helped to get there. The 33,000 students who arrived at Sheffield Hallam over the past two weeks have come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds and trajectories. Our work with them is about potential. The 4,500 staff who work with them – similarly – come in fascinating variety. All have different things to offer the University’s aims and purpose. If universities don’t put difference and diversity at the heart of what they do, they are failing at an important part of their mission. It’s important that everyone – whatever their ethnicity, gender, sexuality, faith, disability – feels welcomed in the University community. And beyond this, if, as a university, we don’t mobilise the talents of everyone, we will simply not achieve our potential as an organisation or as a community.

There are good stories to tell about Sheffield Hallam’s work for students and staff. The University was one of just six scoring 10 out of 10 in the Stonewall Gay By Degree index in 2015. The University has been nominated for a Race Equality Award for its work on increasing Black and Minority Ethnic participation in Paramedic Practice Courses, working with Health Education East Midlands, the University of Northampton and the Equality Challenge Unit. Most recently, the Higher Education Progression Partnership (HEPP), Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield have won more than £11m of government funding for a major project to increase the number of young people from a wider range of backgrounds across South Yorkshire going to university. The programme, within the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), is part of the government’s commitment to double the participation of students in higher education from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020 and increase the number black and minority ethnic (BME) students by 20 per cent over the same time period.

But alongside these successes, there are continuing challenges. There is a persistent BME attainment gap – in 2014/15 there was a 20 per cent difference between BME students and their White British peers in obtaining upper second and first class undergraduate degrees. Further back in the student journey, analysis of application to offer conversions suggest that white students have a 66 per cent rate of converting compared to the overall BME application to offer rate of 54 per cent. The numbers of individuals underlying these percentages are relatively small, but that is not the point: the difference is persistent.

The story is similar for the University’s staff. There’s good news. The University became a Stonewall Diversity Champion in 2012, joined the Business in the Community race equality campaign in 2012 and participated in a national race benchmarking exercise in 2014 and 2015. The University holds an institutional Athena SWAN bronze award, and three departmental awards – in Biosciences (silver), Nursing and Midwifery (bronze) and Psychology (bronze). But progress is frustratingly slow. There is evidence of serious under-representation of staff from BME backgrounds: the University’s BME staff population has remained at 6 per cent for the past five years, which is thirteen percentage points lower than the city’s BME population, and five points below the sector average. And our evidence suggests that staff from protected characteristic groups under the 2010 Equalities Act tend to be concentrated in low to middle pay bands.

This all matters. It matters because addressing inequity is a human rights matter. Inequity is wrong; decency and dignity are important. But it also matters because if we are not maximizing the contribution of all, we are being less successful than we could be. Writing about the commercial world, the McKinsey Diversity Matters report puts it clearly: “We know intuitively that diversity matters. It’s also increasingly clear that it makes sense in purely business terms…Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.”

Changing this is not a simple one-step measure. It demands attention at every level. I have appointed Professor John Leach to lead on equalities and academic staffing – focusing primarily on one aspect of the challenge. In the last few months Aloma Onyemah, who leads our Equality and Diversity team, has brought a programme for action to the University Leadership Team. These things do matter, and systemic change needs leadership and commitment, but what, probably, matters more is recognising the challenges and working to address them throughout the University. Complex change is complex, but it ultimately depends on individual actions. Which is, perhaps, where this blog began.

4 thoughts on “Making a difference to difference

  1. May I be the first to say how much I enjoyed reading this, and also how much I value the genuine commitment shown by you, our VC, to issues of Equality and Diversity. It captures many examples of progress that have been made in the last few years, and identifies clearly, some of the challenges that remain.
    Thank you.
    Linda Wilson, Careers and Employability Consultant, and Chair of SIGNAL, the Sheffield Hallam staff LGBT network.

  2. An excellent post. Its great to have a VC who thinks deeply about the role of HE in addressing broader socio-economic issues and takes the time to share his views with his staff.


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