The Interview UK
City, University of London

Helen Watson

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) has become an increasingly crucial issue in recent years, and this is particularly the case on university campuses. Just as important as it is to attract a diverse student body and have them feel welcome and safe, attracting a diverse staff goes hand-in-hand with that. It not only allows students to feel understood and heard but opens up the institution itself to a great wealth of ideas and opportunities for growth.

Co-host of The Interview Luke James spoke to Helen Watson, Chief Operating Officer (COO) of City, University of London (CUL) about how a diverse, present staff of people who reflect the majority of the student body can help them and the university thrive.

Helen’s Journey

Luke: What brought you to your current role?

I’m a university lifer, really. I have a Masters in Higher Education (HE), which set me on my path of university administration. I actually started at CUL for about nine years in various roles. Then I was Director of Planning at the University of Oxford for six years, followed by the COO role at Goldsmith’s for five years. I’ve been in my current COO role at CUL for fifteen months.

Luke: What are some of CUL’s main EDI initiatives currently?

CUL was awarded an Athena SWAN Bronze Award in November 2016. We received the Race Equality Charter Bronze Award in November last year. So I’ve been supporting colleagues working across the university to deliver our Race Equity Action Plan. City are members of the University Mental Health Charter programme and plan to apply for charter status next academic year. We need to improve our understanding of institutional and structural barriers standing in the way of students and staff of colour. The University has a project underway to better understand the experience of our staff and I’ve been supporting the team to facilitate participation in that. We are also looking at bringing in a tool for people to report racial discrimination. I’m also involved in the reciprocal mentoring scheme, which the Association of Heads of University Administration is running to build new understanding between senior leaders and aspiring leaders amongst people of colour. 

That’s what universities do. Increase opportunity. Reach out as widely as possible so people want to work with us so we can develop the sort of vibrant staff that reflects the diversity of our students and the local community. And once you bring people in, you have a real obligation to make it an exciting place to work and build trust so they’ll want to stay with us and progress to more senior positions. Make sure our leaders are comfortable in setting expectations and standards. And that we increase awareness around EDI and leadership development opportunities, and implement those professional development programs that increase cultural and managerial competence. 

Luke: How do you articulate the link between EDI work and CUL’s higher-level strategic goals?

We’re here to create and disseminate knowledge. To do that, everyone needs to do their best work. That means they need to be in an environment where they can thrive. It therefore follows that it’s important that the staff body reflect the student body. Of our 20,000 students, nearly 2/3rds are from Black or other minority backgrounds. A wealth of research shows that diversity of voices leads to improved decision-making because they’re more receptive to new and creative ways of doing things. This alone leads to increased output and better quality of work. 

Luke: How do you develop a culture of learning and growth within an institution?

I think it’s interesting how much the tone from the senior team can seep down even in the largest universities. You can always set a tone. If we treat people with openness, transparency, respect, and kindness so people feel they’re working in a safe environment, and if we set expectations that that’s how we expect others to behave, it trickles down. 

Luke: How has CUL navigated hybrid versus on-campus learning since the pandemic?

Very few people on our staff are working wholly from home. University policy is generally that we’re on campus more than half the time. The main reason is it’s a very busy campus, and more than half of our students come from areas of high deprivation. Many students have to be on campus to study because they often don’t have a suitable environment at home. If our students need to be on campus, our staff need to be there with them to support them effectively. So we see ourselves as a place-based university. There are tremendous advantages to being able to work from home some of the time, but we must not forget that we are a learning organisation centred on an apprenticeship model. We all learn and grow from being with our colleagues. I think there’s an equity point for staff as well. Some staff members may have a suitable home environment for home working. But many will not. So I think those of us who can effectively work from home must still remember that many can’t. 

Luke: What would be the single biggest learning that you’ve taken from navigating leading an institution through and out of the pandemic?

Never underestimate what we can achieve. If you said to me three years ago that you can build a mass testing site on your campus in two weeks, or all of your colleagues can suddenly shift all of their teaching online, and all of your students will manage to study at home and still achieve good learning outcomes, I wouldn’t have believed it. Also, listen to your staff and their expertise. Genuinely hear. Don’t rush to decisions or conclusions. Keep a measured approach with warmth and sympathy. 

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