UCL News


Provost's Long View: The National Student Survey, and equality and diversity at UCL

30 January 2014

Before I launch into my main topic for this month's long view on equality and diversity, I wanted to take this opportunity to remind all staff and students that the National Student Survey (NSS) for 2014 is currently active and that we are keen to achieve a much higher response rate from our final year students than in previous years.

National Student Survey logo

Students will have received their first email contact from Ipsos Mori last week and the survey closes on 30 April. National evidence indicates that response rates are highest when academic staff actively encourage their students to participate and I would, therefore, like to ask you to give this some emphasis over the next few weeks until the survey closes.

Boosting participation

Last year, we achieved only a 62% response rate at UCL, compared with 72% overall nationally (and 78% at Leeds!). We have, therefore, chosen to incentivise and reward participation above 72% with a departmental cash award to be spent on the students, pro-rated to cohort size. Each department can, with input from their students, decide on how best to spend the award.

We are doing this because our emerging strategy is to put yet more emphasis on improving the student experience at UCL -, especially the integration of our research and education. To get this right, we need to know what our students think of their experience at UCL.Questions such as "Did you find your course intellectually stimulating?" are of incredible value to us and our future, and the higher the level of participation the better. Any department achieving more than 80% participation, and greater than 90% overall satisfaction (question 22 of the NSS), will receive a Provost's commendation and an invitation to a celebratory reception.

Many of you may know that I chaired the NSS from 2006-2009 and, during that time, we commissioned a statistically based study (from Social Sciences in Bristol) of all the national NSS data, identifying independent factors that were associated with lower levels of student satisfaction.

One important finding was that students from BME (black and minority ethnic) backgrounds were significantly less satisfied overall than white students. The reasons for this were less clear, but a relative absence of academic staff from BME backgrounds is often cited.

Why isn't my Professor black?

If you look at our own website about our forthcoming Diversity Month events, you will find notice of a debate that I will be chairing entitled 'Why isn't my Professor black?'

The flyer for that event identifies the shocking fact that there are only 85 black professors in the UK out of a total of more than 18,510 (0.46%). This contrasts with black students now comprising six per cent of the student body in the UK and, while this continues to rise, the black professorial figure has not changed significantly for the past eight years.There is no conceivable defence for these national numbers and both we and the rest of the sector have to acknowledge that we have a significant problem that must be addressed.

At UCL, we have an Equalities and Diversity Strategy: we take it very seriously and we accept our responsibilities to get this right. I would be the first to acknowledge that this is easy to say, but difficult to deliver on the ground, and it is on this latter point that I really want to make significant progress during my tenure as President & Provost.

Let me be clear, this is an issue I care deeply about and it is one of my strategic priorities.

Our Equalities and Diversity Strategy (2010-2014) is comprehensive and covers race, gender, religion and belief, sexual orientation, disability and age. In line with our legal obligations, it not only seeks to deal firmly with discrimination when it occurs, but is also primarily focused on creating and sustaining a modern, inclusive culture where people from all backgrounds can flourish.

There are only 85 black professors in the UK out of a total of more than 18,510 (0.46%)… and this figure has not changed significantly for the past eight years.

There were many bold actions arising from this strategy, many of which were focused on UCL's longstanding corporate equality objectives:

•    To recruit a more ethnically diverse workforce, specifically increasing the proportion of BME staff at grades 1-8 from 21% to 31% to reflect the average proportion of BME staff for the active workforce in Greater London;

•    To advance women's careers at UCL, specifically increasing the proportion of women at grades 9 and 10 by one per cent each year until there is a 50:50 balance between men and women in these grades.

Slow progress

Despite clear policy and clearly defined objectives, it would be fair to say that progress has been relatively slow on the ground.

The latest data that I have seen for Professional Services staff suggest to me that it is time for a change of focus and that we should pay more attention to the relative homogeneity of staff in management and leadership roles.
•    Professional Services staff at UCL (2013)

There is a huge way to go with respect to the percentage of BME academic staff at UCL and if nationality is also taken into account, then the percentage of BME staff with UK citizenship across all four academic positions reaches only six per cent.
•    Academic staff at UCL (2013)

As one of our newly-appointed black academics said to me, 'diversity' fails to adequately describe or begin to understand the complexity of this issue; we have a problem that could perhaps be best described as being indicative of different 'social hierarchies' in operation.


A similar analysis looking at gender reveals better progress.
•    Professional Services staff at UCL (2013)
•    Academic staff at UCL (2013)

However, with regard to UCL's work on Athena SWAN, the charter for women in academic science, our 2012 institutional bronze award highlighted that only 22% of professors in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) departments were women, compared to 26% in non-STEMM departments.

Progress is being made across UCL STEMM departments: 12 departments hold an Athena SWAN award, and a further 14 departments are working on their applications or waiting for the results from the November submission deadline.

UCL is proud of the hard work that departments have put into their Athena SWAN activities and I am pleased to see the fruits of these actions. However, there is still work to be done, especially if the university is to apply for an institutional silver award in the next year, so complacency is not an option.

Introducing accountability

Last year, UCL Council expressed concern at this slow progress. One of the significant ways that we responded to this concern, - which is incidentally an innovative example of best practice in the sector - was to designate accountability for accelerating our progress to Deans and Vice-Provosts.

A BME member of staff

Under our new Equalities and Diversity (E&D) Accountability Framework, responsibility for implementing meaningful initiatives and for making progress against published targets falls to Deans and Vice-Provosts, supported by professional advice from the E&D team in Human Resources. This has the advantage of putting responsibility for taking action on E&D initiatives closer to where those actions will have most effect and will permit each faculty and division to develop strategies and plans that are tailored to their particular discipline and workplace.

Each Dean and Vice-Provost has put together their own E&D action plan and progress reports are due soon for presentation at our Senior Management Team meeting, and then updated outcomes will be reported to the May meeting of Council. I am confident that this concerted effort is the only way to make headway on such a complex and entrenched set of cultural and societal issues.

Not surprisingly equalities and diversity featured significantly in my interview to become President & Provost of UCL. I gave two practical examples of tackling this set of issues, both related to gender, and they are perhaps germane to how we might think about next steps at UCL.

The first example I gave was related to promotion to the professorial grade (in Leeds). We had found that  there was one small part of the process that women identified (in focus groups) as being difficult for them. This involved a longstanding tradition that all the other professors in a school were asked to sign a letter indicating their support for the promotion.

As a consequence, many women waited until their case was completely watertight before entering the process, despite the evidence that once they did so, they stood the same chance of success as men. We simply removed the need for that letter and applications from women increased dramatically with no significant drop in the success rate.

My second example related to senior positions on the Vice-Chancellor's team in Leeds. I was involved in appointing several women to the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor or to senior service directorships.

In most of these cases, I proactively encouraged applications from very high-quality individuals, but without promising anyone the post in advance of due process. I am quite confident that those individuals would not have applied without such encouragement and each of them won their posts fairly and squarely on the basis of merit.

Rethinking recruitment

I would not pretend that these two examples provide the answer to the way forward for UCL, but I think they do highlight some key points. The first is that we have to look in great detail at our recruitment and promotions processes; particularly, but not exclusively, through the lens of both gender and race to ensure that there are no elements that have the effect of excluding applicants from particular groups.

UCL may be full of exceptionally bright people, but we need to accept that we will inevitably have blind spots in our knowledge of how its culture affects people who are different from us.

Listening carefully to the specific concerns of such staff is an essential element of getting it right over time. UCL may be full of exceptionally bright people, but we need to accept that we will inevitably have blind spots in our knowledge of how its culture affects people who are different from us.

The second is that we have to work with women, BME people and those with disabilities to understand better what prevents them from coming forward for leadership positions in every level of the institution.

Mentorship is key, but also extending this to the point of 'sponsorship' of key individuals with high levels of ability or potential is another way forward. In fact, the concept of sponsorship was outlined to me at a recent lunch meeting with the Race Equality Steering Group and I found the idea compelling. Perhaps that is exactly what I was, in part, doing in Leeds as I encouraged women to come forward for senior positions.

In  SMT we have, of course, considered many different approaches to making progress on equalities and diversity and I will briefly outline them to display the scope of our thinking.

Collective responsibility

The first is widespread ownership and leadership of this set of issues across the university. The tone has to be set from the top and so do many of the actions, but, essentially, everybody in the institution needs to understand what their personal contribution might be and then to take responsibility for delivering it.

This effort is very ably supported by our network of Equality Champions. To put it another way, though, Deans and Vice-Provosts will only make progress against their action plans and aspirational targets if we all join in and help them achieve their goals.

One key issue that is under our immediate control as a senior team is the equal pay gap, particularly within the professorial bands. We have managed to close this gap significantly in recent years and we will shortly complete the latest of our annual reviews of professorial pay.

Our intention is that, within a professorial pay band, there should be parity of pay, for parity of performance, judged objectively.

Once we have this new data on professorial pay, we will formulate a plan with the aim of removing that gap completely and maintaining pay equity in the long term. Our intention is that, within a professorial pay band, there should be parity of pay, for parity of performance, judged objectively.

For BME staff, women and any other groups that would perceive benefit, we will pilot advanced and effective mentoring, training, senior shadowing and sponsorship schemes aimed at developing high calibre individuals so that talent and potential are not wasted through a lack of attention and encouragement.

These should not be a series of one-off events, but more a dedicated programme of personal support and development that brings the very best out of our staff.

Improving childcare

We also intend to review the support available for childcare at UCL by December 2014 and will consider whether provision should be extended, including looking at departmental nomination schemes for priority places and our current and future levels of subsidy for staff and students.

Similarly, I am aware that maternity cover and support can be inconsistent for students and researchers. We will investigate whether a more uniform approach can be taken across UCL, so that the accompanying costs are borne equitably and departments are not in any way disincentivised from employing younger women.

Where we make progress with equalities and diversity, we must recognise and reward excellence and that is why I will soon be launching  a new Provost's Excellence Award Scheme.

For many senior positions at UCL, our recruitment processes often involve the use of headhunters. For all recent senior academic, administrative and Council positions, we have insisted on long lists that are more balanced with respect to gender, to good effect. We will now extend that to finding greater numbers of candidates for these posts that are from BME backgrounds.

Facing uncomfortable truths

At a recent lunch meeting of the Racial Equality Steering Group (RESG),  several other  suggestions emerged that will shortly form the basis of a paper to SMT for further consideration. These included:

•    Encouraging courageous, active and continuous leadership to galvanise senior leaders to accept uncomfortable truths (about racial discrimination) and to be publicly determined to change them.

•    Against that background, I have agreed to champion the forthcoming race equality charter mark, developed with UCL participation (jointly with others) and the Equality Challenge Unit. I have also agreed to chair personally our self assessment team, thus matching my chairmanship of the 50:50 group (which holds responsibility for Athena SWAN) with respect to gender equality.

•    Increasing the representation of BME staff across the university and to widely encourage Heads of Department and senior staff to use the positive action provisions of the Equality Act (2010), which allows the selection of a candidate from an under-represented group in a tie-break situation. This approach has already been endorsed by UCL Council.

•    Enhancing BME staff development (see above)

•    Embedding accountability across UCL to ensure that the new Equalities Accountability Framework is enacted effectively such that senior individuals (including myself) are held to account for creating a workplace culture that strongly encourages and values diversity and has measurable results.

We also had a very interesting discussion about the more academic aspects of race equality such as curriculum content and the under-representation of black history in British academic institutions.

Let me be clear, this is an issue I care deeply about and it is one of my strategic priorities.

Although commonplace in US universities, 'Black Studies' is apparently not offered in any UK university. If correct, that seems quite an omission and an interesting possibility for UCL, given that we already have the Equiano Centre in UCL Geography.

There will be more on this as our new strategy emerges over the next few weeks and months, and individual faculties and departments are asked to plan against that new framework.

My final thoughts are that the issues discussed in this article give an indication of how complex it is to face up to and deal effectively with equality and diversity.

Two thoughts drive me forward. The first is that we really are duty bound to tackle equality and diversity head on, given our proud history and our stated values. The second is that there will be a clear competitive advantage from getting this right.

We must develop a reputation for being one of the best universities in the world to come to, regardless of your gender or background. We want you to come and join us and to do your best work here - it's as simple as that, but we have a lot more work to do to get there.

Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost

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