Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at universities has increasingly become a hot-button issue in recent years as more and more institutions realise the importance of creating environments that are welcoming and equitable to students of all backgrounds. Few universities, however, have created a central institute for handling all EDI work across the campus, but that’s exactly what happened at the University of Lincoln.
Co-host of The Interview Charles Sin spoke to Belinda Colston, Founding Director of the Eleanor Glanville Institute, University of Lincoln, about what inspired her to make this unusual move.
I’m a nuclear chemist by training and, as you may know, nuclear chemistry is very male-dominated, or at least it was when I started. I was often one of the only women at meetings and conferences. And even when I joined the University of Lincoln, I was the first female professor in the College of Science. And maybe because of that, about twelve years ago, I was asked to lead the Athena Swan gender equality charter for Higher Education (HE) at the University. At that point, the University hadn’t been engaged in any EDI work at all. Once I started looking at the gender inequalities in STEM particularly, at that time, I realised how I’d been negatively impacted throughout my career and also how other underrepresented groups have been impacted. So that was the start of my interest, and that just grew. I started doing one day a week, then two, and now five! I stepped out of the School of Chemistry this academic year, so now I’m doing EDI work full-time at our central EDI Eleanor Glanville Institute, as both Director of Institute and the University’s Strategic Lead for EDI.
The first application was quite challenging. I think at that time the goalposts kept moving, and it was never quite clear what the Equality Challenge Unit (now Advance HE) wanted! I took an ‘Athena Swan Roadshow’ around the University, to all STEM Schools, and introduced the Charter to them — not always a positive experience! I approached the first submission as if it was a huge grant application, bringing together a large team of collaborators (in this case, stakeholders within the institution), collecting and collating the evidence, building a case for resources from the University, and then building the strategy and application. We built the action plan quite collaboratively and developed a number of (what became sector-leading) interventions as well. I wanted to do something that wasn’t just ticking boxes. I wanted to start bringing real change to the University.
Thirteen years ago, there was little awareness of the inequalities at the University and no work being carried out towards EDI — beyond our legal duty, upholding the Equality Act regarding discrimination, etc. But over the years, we established several EDI-related key performance indicators (KPIs) for the University to increase the number of female professors, and women in general, into science. Over the next five years, the number of female professors rose significantly to the point that, by 2017, we exceeded the WISE benchmark for female academics in STEM at all levels!
It came from the EDI focus I’ve had since 2012. I suppose that, as a scientist, I brought a ‘science brain’ into the EDI space — a very solutions-focussed approach. One of my first observations was how EDI in the wider HE sector was carried out in a very piecemeal — very fragmented — way. But I believed (and still do) that until you start coordinating and integrating EDI work, you won’t get any real change. And so I proposed establishing a Centre to lead and coordinate all EDI work for the University. Eleanor Glanville, by the way, is a nod to Lincolnshire, and she was the first female entomologist in the UK. I also wanted to bring researchers and practitioners together — academics and professional services staff — to work together to underpin everything we did across the University (in terms of EDI) with research and evaluate our progress using robust research methodologies.
Last year we officially became an Institute. We started with three, and now there are sixteen of us. When we set up the Institute, we made a controversial decision to bring in the HR EDI team, so now Eleanor Glanville is the central EDI function of the University. And that’s quite unusual.
Yes, it’s not an easy thing. Many students, of course, are not interested in EDI — they pay their tuition fees to learn their chosen field of study. We’ve set up a student hub to engage students at Welcome Week when they first arrive, those who are interested and would like to work with us on projects and then bring other students in. But I think over the last three or four years, particularly post-pandemic, we’re getting many more students coming in with an interest in EDI. A lot of students from underrepresented groups in particular are wanting to do something outside their degree to help improve inclusion for other students, and that’s wonderful!
What we found works best is to bring students into our research projects. Try to get them to co-create our interventions and get involved with measuring impact and/or collecting lived experience from their peers. If you can engage students interested in EDI and get them involved in helping to change your university, that’s the best way to start.