The UK Higher Education sector is experiencing rapid changes. These are driven by globalisation, the increasing use of technology and enhanced connectivity.
Although the evolution within the sector is exciting, it also contributes to some complex challenges. Universities are under pressure to meet increasing student target numbers, they face global competition as well as strive to promote inclusion for employees. In the following article, I have collected some of the barriers to establishing an inclusive workplace and provided some guidance to make improvements.
What is inclusion in the higher education sector?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, inclusion can be defined as:
‘The idea that everyone should be able to use the same facilities, take part in the same activities, and enjoy the same experiences, including people who have a disability or other disadvantage.’
What are some of the challenges?
An inclusive working environment means providing the same opportunities to all staff, including the ability to challenge unfair practices. Most universities have strong intentions to establish an inclusive workplace. However, a number of obstacles could stand in the way.
Poor staff morale, limited departmental budgets and lack of positive leadership could stand in the way. At times, senior managers fail to acknowledge the importance of inclusion and consider it as a ‘nice-to-have’ as opposed to a ‘must-have’. Universities need to have a thorough understanding of some of the barriers before setting out to create positive changes.
What initiatives can help?
Developing inclusive workplaces can be a time-consuming task. Ensuring fair recruitment and management practices is vital. Universities need to encourage respect, tolerance, and mutual understanding among staff.
Recruitment: Inclusivity starts at the recruitment stage. Providing equal treatment to all job applicants will help to establish a diverse workforce. Employees who come from a wide range of cultural, professional and geographical backgrounds will contribute to more innovative ideas. The more diverse the workforce, the more they will be able to come up with creative approaches. Better decision-making is another benefit of diversity. Developing the reputation of an inclusive workplace will contribute to attracting highly skilled candidates who want to make a real difference to the organisation. Diversity brings about valuable benefits for both the individual and the university.
To make recruitment more inclusive, universities can widen their search for attracting a diverse pool of talent. They can provide reasonable arrangements for interviewees, and carefully train interviewers to help them avoid bias.
UCL, founded in 1826, is proud to have received a number of awards in recognition of its achievements in equality, diversity and inclusion. Inclusion forms a significant part of UCL’s ethos. It forms the basis of employee well-being and innovation.
Work patterns: The traditional 9-5 working pattern no longer suits everyone. The best universities recognise that working hours should be more flexible and be tailored to staff members’ personal circumstances. Flexitime, part-time job share, home working or blended arrangements can help employees to align their work with family or caring responsibilities.
Accessible facilities: Employees may have different physical impairments and face barriers to employment. Universities should think proactively and recognise some of these physical challenges in advance, as well as listen to employees’ feedback regarding improving working conditions.
Ongoing staff support: According to Education Support, HE employees report lower than average well-being. Based on a report conducted in 2021, more than three-quarters of the respondents admitted concerns over working very intensively. Mental wellbeing levels among HE employees have been found lower than the population norms. Peer support, positive work relationships, staff events, coaching and counselling have been some of the ways which helped staff members improve their well-being. Throughout the pandemic, employees found the combination of physical and emotional support most helpful. Regular contact with colleagues and supportive management have contributed to feeling part of an inclusive community. Technical training helped move from face-to-face teaching to online platforms quickly and convert teaching materials.
Awareness of events: There is an increasing number of organisations that promote external awareness events such as Pride, International Women’s Day and Black History Month. Universities could share reminders amongst staff to promote awareness of events (e.g. explain why individuals may be fasting at Ramadan).
Knowledge sharing: Silos mean that one group excludes others. Silos happen when people working in groups do not engage with other colleagues and fail to share valuable information. ‘Working in silos is more natural than working collaboratively. It’s a tribal mentality,’ according to Ron Ashkenas, co-author of The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook.
Encouraging inter-departmental communication may require a significant amount of time as well as a change of culture. Knowledge sharing events, conferences, workshops, training courses and social events are useful for providing staff with the opportunity to get to know each other better and to encourage collaboration.
The University of Oxford employs over 11,000 staff members and it is genuinely committed to providing an inclusive work environment. Employees are hired from a broader range of geographical areas and they are strongly expected to respect different beliefs. The University encourages staff to be sensitive to the needs of others and to talk about differences in preferences.
Exit interviews: An exit interview is a conversation between the organisation and the employee leaving. These interviews can help with finding out how inclusive the organisation really is. Leavers are more emotionally distanced and they are more willing to share their genuine feelings. They are aware that the conversation could trigger some changes for people still working for the organisation and those joining at a later stage.
Consistency: Maintaining an inclusive culture is never a one-off event. It needs to be part of daily strategic conversations. It needs to be an evolving concept. Developing an inclusive working environment needs to be a shared responsibility. Individuals at all levels should consider it a priority. Establishing a culture of tolerance and acceptance demands significant and consistent effort.
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