Diversity in London’s HE Leadership – what have we learned from our London Higher project?


One short answer is ‘not much we didn’t already know’.  Nor, given there are a plethora of interested parties running between them countless pieces of research, and numerous projects and initiatives, would this come as too much of a surprise. It would, however, not be entirely accurate.

Most – maybe all? – of the other HE sector initiatives have been or are being run at national level. The lack of diversity amongst leaders and the senior leader tier in HEIs is a national issue so fair enough. In my (overlong?!) experience there is often a regional dimension to a matter like this, though, and thus a place for regional work to complement those national efforts.

London’s HE sector is often at the cutting edge. Leading the way, for example, in widening participation and access into HE for people from under-represented groups. At a regional level, London’s student profile – undergraduate and postgraduate – is easily the most diverse in the UK. London is a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city too.  Add in the range of HEIs, one might think that London’s HE leadership profile would be more diverse than elsewhere.  It isn’t!

Nationally, one in five heads of HEIs is currently female; In London, it’s one in eight.  All heads of London HEIs are white. In 2014 HEFCE commissioned London Higher to undertake a project to help understand our diversity challenges.  Details on the project background, steering group members, factsheets and other data and information produced during the project can be found at www.londonhigher.ac.uk/diversity.html. A research project to look at the relationship between diversity training and outcomes is also in progress and the findings will be available later this year.

The London data, like the national findings, shows that numbers of female staff employed are good, but they tail off in senior grades in both academic and professional services, (holding up better in the latter). This tailing off also applies to BME staff and here, if certain functions (e.g. hospitality) are excluded, there seems an issue about the attractiveness of a career in HE at entry level/earlier career points. Variations can be seen in the patterns in different cost centres and academic subject areas too. Overall, the trend for white male staff to become steadily more dominant in the more senior grades remains stark even in 2013-14. For all the undoubted energies HEIs are putting into improving diversity in their own institutions, both in terms of senior staff and on their Governing Bodies, there’s still a long way to go.

There is an appetite to address the situation.  Our project has pointed to various interesting initiatives taking place in London HEIs. Kingston University London and UCL are just two examples of HEIs prioritising different sorts of diversity initiatives. Both are willing to share their experiences to help boost efforts elsewhere. Some London HEIs, UEL being one, can point to diverse Governing Bodies. St Georges, University of London – one of our specialist member HEIs – is ranked in Stonewall’s Top 50 employers. Most HEIs have been awarded or are seeking to gain the ECU gender and equality charter marks, and are also engaged in national initiatives like Aurora, Athena Swan and Stellar.  Nonetheless the rate of change remains, in the view of some people at least, slow with progress across the region (and the country) patchy.

Sector-wide initiatives often focus primarily on academic staff, and/or gender equality.  In addition to the challenge in respect of BME, for other groups underrepresented at senior level – e.g. for disabled and LGBT staff – data and research is not as robust and less is known about supportive efforts, at least for the moment. Our small-scale London Higher project embraced academic and professional services staff, but we could only scratch the surface.  Our data provides a useful baseline, and we have learned a bit about what HEIs are doing, their concerns and priorities, and how we might assist.  I will comment more about on findings and possible next steps for London Higher in future blogs.