A sense of belonging is not only critical to the academic achievement of individual students but also the success of institutions as a whole. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Margaret Ayers, Director of Human Resources and Organisation Development at Canterbury Christchurch University and Vice Chair of UHR, who has worked tirelessly to create an inclusive atmosphere for all.
Margaret met with Luke James, Co-Host of the Interview, to discuss the importance of fostering an inclusive environment, the challenges the pandemic brought to universities, and her unique career path before entering Higher Education (HE).
I’m Director of Human Resources and Organisation Development — that’s probably one of the longest job titles in the world! I’m currently working at Canterbury Christchurch University in Kent. We started as a teacher training college back in the 1960s, and we recently celebrated our 60th anniversary. In that time, we’ve grown massively: in 2020, we established a new Medical School in collaboration with the University of Kent, and we opened a new £60 million Medical and Engineering building in 2021.
Actually, my career was originally in theatre! I left school at 16, and I went to drama school before getting into children’s theatre. We performed in schools, theatres, and festivals — touring the country and living out the back of a transit van. Then I went to university when I was in my twenties, going on to enrol in Sainsbury’s Graduate Scheme, where I did my HR training and studied for my CIPD. I got into HE about 20 years ago, starting with the Students’ Union before going on to work with universities.
It’s been extremely challenging, especially here at Christchurch. We’re a community-serving institution with a focus on subjects like nursing and health. I’d been at Christchurch for a year before we got hit by lockdown. Health and Safety is an important part of my portfolio, so pandemic response became a primary focus of my role. We had to adopt new ways of working, new methods of communication, and new ways of meeting people’s needs. We’re still dealing with the ripple effects of the pandemic even today.
There are a lot of different aspects to that. I think in the post-Covid era, creating belonging is more difficult than ever. We’ve been huge proponents of smart working — that’s our term for hybrid work — to try and bridge the gap between in-office and remote work. It’s not just about where you work, but also when and how. We’re trying to give people more freedom and flexibility, and that’s really helped us when it comes to recruiting new staff. When you bring in new colleagues, you need to build up that sense of belonging from scratch — so a welcoming environment is essential.
We’ve been doing a lot of work around anti-racism and striving to close the awarding gap, especially for Black students. At the moment, we’re running anti-racism workshops: we aren’t lecturing, but instead opening up the conversation. We’re taking a bottom-up approach to inclusion, building our staff networks and involving them in decision-making. Trust and open communication are foundational — everything else stems from there.
We’re taking a bottom-up approach to inclusion, building our staff networks and involving them in decision-making. Trust and open communication are foundational — everything else stems from there.
At its heart, it’s about leadership. Senior leaders need to show a commitment to causes and have challenging conversations within their own teams. At Christchurch, we don’t outsource, so everything is in-house — we employ all our employees directly, from our catering team to our housekeeping staff. We believe we have an obligation to take care of all our staff.
You’ve got to be relevant. You need to appreciate the demands placed on staff, whether academic or administrative. We try to take a whole-university approach involving students and staff, bringing issues closer and making them feel more real. We’ve been doing a lot of work around mental health and well-being, making sure we understand the pressures that people are experiencing. Just before lockdown, we created a new approach for our performance review system designed around ongoing, healthy conversations. Traditional forms of appraisal leave a lot of staff feeling demoralised, and we’ve had some excellent feedback about our new approach.
I’ve been involved in an executive role at UHR for about seven or eight years. I’ve always been committed to the idea that universities should be centres of learning. That’s one of the great things about UHR, and we’ve stepped up in the past couple of years. We brought in some new people to help us with projects, particularly to improve our use of data. Last year, I went as an ambassador to a conference of our American counterparts — they’re facing the same issues we are, but they’re a little ahead of us in some aspects, so it was invigorating to learn from those ideas.
At Christchurch, we have a lot of first-generation students. Our average student is about 29 years old and we have a lot of their students in their thirties or above. Many people assume the South East is affluent, but we also have some areas of deprivation. So we strive to be responsive to our community and we’re trying to embed a compassionate curriculum at the heart of everything we do. Our new strategy places inclusion, compassion, and belonging at its core, and we’re hoping all students benefit from that commitment.
It has to come from the top. Leaders in an organisation need to be role models and demonstrate why these issues are important. It’s about what you do, not just what you say.