Some of you may remember that I started my previous blog with an open letter to Alison Johns, CEO of Advance HE, in response to an event her organisation had just run in London about universities and the fourth industrial revolution. Who were the experts that Advance HE had put forward to predict the brave new world of higher education? All men. Twelve men, no women.
My main argument in that post was that all institutions in the higher education ecosystem have a repsonsibility to proactively promote diversity. But here we are again. Earlier today I was scanning Twitter and I came across this from John Gill, editor of Times Higher Education:
Maybe it was just me but that image hardly screams diversity. Who are the experts that THE has asked to comment on ‘the landscape ahead for UK and global HE’? All men. Three men, no women. But actually it’s worse than that if we look at this through the lens of diversity. Who are these three men? Well, in short:
- they are white
- they were all educated at public school and then went to Oxford University
- they were all Minister for Universities and Science (or equivalent) in Conservative-led Westminster government administrations
The THE is, like Advance HE, one of the key institutions of UK higher education sector and has, at times, been an important voice for raising questions about issues of equality and diversity in the sector. See, for instance, this piece on the pay gap for black academics. However, I don’t think it’s enough to represent diversity some of the time, least of all now when there are many eyes looking at how higher education adapts to this most challenging of contexts.
In an earlier post I argued that we can find the good, the bad and the ugly in the way UK universities have responded to the Covid-19 crisis. Of course mistakes will be made but, raising our heads a little and looking at the bigger picture, maybe we need to consider why some countries, let alone higher education institutions, have been rather more effective in their response to this emergency. Compare this image to the one used to promote the THE event:
The THE are not responsible for choosing the Minister for Universities and Science but they do have agency when it comes to the voices they amplify. They have a choice. Moreover, it does not take much to find equally expert voices who would bring diversity to this kind of panel. How about the current Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan?
Even then, I think the panel would be dangerously narrow in its ideological spectrum. As ministers for Conservative governments, the panel members are all proponents, to a greater or lesser degree, of the marketised system of higher education in England. Remember that this panel is purportedly brought together to speak about ‘UK and global HE’ but they do not begin to represent views on higher education policy across these shores, let alone further afield. Does the THE not have the telephone number for Kirsty Williams?
If we want to see a real step change in the way UK higher education addresses issues of equality and diversity, we all need to stick to those values and even more so at a critical juncture for the future of the sector. This is not a grey area. Structural inequality is rife throughout our universities and amplifying the voices of three white men, however expert the individuals might be, only serves to demonstrate why that inequality exists in the first place.
This post’s soundtrack: