Change-making in the university space is notoriously difficult, especially for institutions steeped in tradition. For South East Technological University, only established this year, there is huge potential for establishing new modes of operation and cultures of inclusivity.
Allison Kenneally, South East’s Vice President (VP) for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) chats to Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, on culture change, effective training provision, and campus life after Covid.
I’m VP for EDI at South East Technological University, a brand new institution only formed in May this year, though we are comprised of two older universities. My role is a new role, with a particular focus on gender equality, race equality, and tackling sexual harassment and violence on campus.
EDI wasn’t a planned career path for me. I was originally a legal academic, and always had a keen interest in equality and social justice. Several years ago, we decided to pursue an Athena Swan accreditation. I led that project, which gave me a huge interest and insight into this type of work and what you can achieve.
It all comes down to the question, what type of university do we want to be? So much has changed in the world in the last few years, and universities need to reflect that — because they can be notoriously slow to change. Embedding EDI into universities is a huge culture change initiative. You have to accept that that takes time, I like to use the analogy of eating the elephant — one bite at a time.
You have to get real buy-in, so spending time on getting that right is really important. If you can get that foundation right then people will get on board with the process. It helps that we’re a new institution — it gives the opportunity to reimagine programmes, policies and procedures, and correct the wrongs of the past.
In terms of EDI, students are often way ahead of the universities themselves. We learn so much from our students. We’ve done a lot of work on gender identity and expression. We have more students changing genders and names, using non-binary pronouns for example. It’s up to the university to work with everyone to educate people and put structures in place to accommodate that change.
We’ve led a number of sectoral projects on this in Ireland. It’s about training and educating staff. There’s almost a fear with people about that generational gap and divide, so a lot of work is being done to ensure people feel more comfortable with changing terminology.
Tackling sexual harassment and violence is another area. All of our first years do active consent training courses. Our data shows that unfortunately, lots of students do experience this issue, but we also know a lot of these events have witnesses. We want to give students the skills and knowledge to intervene if it’s safe to do so.
It’s a challenge for everyone at the moment. Lots of people aren’t used to being in a classroom setting or doing formal exams, so we have a lot of work to do. Understanding and empathy from teachers is key. We’re running lots of peer-to-peer mentoring schemes and other orientation activities. But I think relationships between students and staff being based on mutual understanding that things have changed is vital.
Understanding and empathy from teachers is key. We’re running lots of peer-to-peer mentoring schemes and other orientation activities.
It’s really important. In the proposal to create the university, we said student experience is at the heart of what we do and we try to live to that.
Belonging means different things to different people. Sometimes, it means visible symbols of LBGTQ+ inclusion on campus; for someone else, it’s about having people to chat to in common spaces. It’s hard to foster it in a new university, but it comes over time and is mostly about leading by example. Respect, friendliness and openness are key — the everyday things people do like helping someone who’s lost on campus — that’s almost more important.
Sometimes EDI work can be tokenistic and performative. Before we hop on the bandwagon celebrating every single event in the EDI calendar, we have to have substance behind this, living it in everyday actions and values.
Be authentic. Your voice and opinion is as valuable as anybody else’s.
I did my doctorate at the University of Bath, and was lucky enough to work with Professor Rajani Naidoo, who has recently been appointed VP of Community and Inclusion there. She’s done fantastic work in HE management research, race equality and more.
Ronald Barnett’s Being A University. It’s a foundational book in HE management, tracing the history of the institution and making you think about the bigger picture — what a university’s mission really is.