Creating an equitable and diverse learning environment for university students is a massive challenge – particularly today, when online classrooms are becoming more and more commonplace.
Making sure that every student gets the most out of their time at university has been Katherine Linehan’s passion throughout her career. She recently took on the role of Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the University of Nottingham, after spending many years teaching Anatomy alongside holding an EDI leadership role at the University of Sheffield.
Kitty Hadaway, our EDI lead at GoodCourse, sat down with Katherine to ask about her experiences so far, and plans for her new role.
When I moved back into Higher Education, it really struck me that a lot of the inclusive practices that are routine in school classrooms aren’t standard practice at a university level.
The question I’ve been trying to answer for most of my career is: how can you make a learning experience inclusive and welcoming for everyone, irrespective of the size of the student cohort?
I think a big part of the answer to this is changing the curriculum, so that it reflects the students studying it. It’s important to cultivate an ethos of inclusivity, where EDI is at the heart of what we do, and not just an add-on to the student experience.
I’m passionate about making sure that the student experience is positive for everyone, and about helping students bring their most authentic selves to university. That’s what attracted me to the Pro-Vice Chancellor role at Nottingham.
When I first started my career, the sector was very white and male. When I took maternity leave for the first time, I was told that I had made a career-ending move and would never get into a leadership role.
Soon after the birth of my son, my Dad developed Parkinson’s disease and I experienced what it’s like to be a carer to both a young child and a parent. Following the birth of my daughter, I became disabled myself with constant chronic pain, limited mobility, fibromyalgia as well as experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.
When it came to these challenges, my colleagues weren’t always sure of how to support me – not because they didn’t care, but because there was a lack of training and knowledge in the whole sector at the time. That led to some isolating and challenging times for me in my career, as I endeavoured to balance the needs of two small children, a terminally ill father, my own physical disability and poor mental health.
Things in the sector are moving in the right direction.
I think things in the sector are moving in the right direction now, in terms of staff and students being able to be open and supported regarding their protected characteristics, but there is still a way to go until everyone feels a sense of belonging in Higher Education. Personally in my career, I’ve always been driven by trying to make sure that people have more positive experiences in the future than I did.
There has been a massive shift in people’s willingness to talk about EDI which is a pattern seen across the whole Higher Education sector. EDI used to be seen as ‘nice to have’ and wasn’t always seen as essential, but it is increasingly becoming embedded into all core business.
I was the first person to hold the role of EDI Director for the Science faculty at Sheffield and this was a career-defining and overwhelmingly positive experience. I was strongly supported in this role by the Head of Faculty and was viewed as a key member of the leadership team with the issues I wanted to raise not being relegated to the last item on the agenda because it was EDI related. By the time I left this role 4 years later, it was colleagues around the table in meetings who asked the question whether decision making had impacted on those with protected characteristics rather than solely me. That was the strongest message that cultural change had picked up momentum within the Faculty.
There’s no one fix for EDI – being successful in creating cultural change means having multiple strategies and approaches that interlink in a holistic fashion. So with that in mind, I’m incredibly proud of how at Sheffield we took an intersectional approach to things.
I’m not just a white woman, I’m a white woman who’s also disabled – if we had focused just on gender equality, or just on disability advocacy, people like me still wouldn’t have the sense of belonging that would allow me to bring my authentic self to work.
My main goal in my role at Nottingham is to keep focusing on that. I want to keep listening to individual’s lived experiences and use this knowledge to help shape the University’s policies, practices and culture.
The student voice is at the heart of the EDI transformational change in Higher Education and so I am always keen to listen to student opinions and experiences. For example, students of colour were a key part of the inclusive curricula work we carried out at Sheffield. We paid BAME student interns to be our critical friends to ensure that the revised curriculum felt inclusive and representative to them as opposed to staff dictating what should be taught and how.
To me, the best way to engage students with EDI topics is to help them see how it’s relevant to everyone and explore the benefits that having cultural understanding and global agility has for them as graduates.
During intro week I have previously run sense of belonging sessions for the new student intake. These sessions encourage the students to think about what makes them feel like they belong in a group scenario and to similarly reflect on what are barriers to them feeling included in a group. By sharing these perspectives with a wide and diverse group of students, individuals can quickly begin to appreciate the lived experiences of their peers and have an understanding of what may make their contemporaries feel excluded from the university community. This session often triggers EDI conversations which then last the whole of their degree.
Don’t be frightened to be open about who you are and your own lived experience. Be proud of your protected characteristics and feel confident to discuss them – if not for yourself, then for others, so that they know it’s okay for them to be their authentic self.
I most admire people who have privilege, are acutely aware of their privilege and proactively choose to advocate for those with protected characteristics, even when it is detrimental to their own career advancement to do so.
It’s a Don’s Life, by Mary Beard. Her commentary on life reminds me to not be fearful to vocalise what I believe in, to ask questions, be pragmatic and to always find the humour in things!