Access to quality education should be a fundamental right, and advancing equity in higher education is the key to securing that right for all. In her role as Director of the Office for Institutional Equity at Leeds Trinity University, Tamsin Bowers-Brown is responsible for driving her organisation’s equity efforts, from increasing representation to implementing a dedicated social justice framework.
Tamsin sat down with Luke James, Co-Host of the Interview, to talk over topics such as embedding equity at the heart of the curriculum and designing EDI policies which can create lasting change.
I’m the Director of the Office for Institutional Equity at Leeds Trinity University. It’s a new directorate which was established in January 2022. Leeds Trinity is based on a small campus in Horsforth, just north of Leeds, but we’re planning an expansion into the city centre. We have around 10,000 students, half of whom are on campus with the other half at partner institutions.
I started my career in higher education about 20 years ago. My career started at Sheffield Hallam University, working as a researcher. I’ve always been passionate about tackling inequality, specifically about widening participation. At the time, there was a lot of discourse about increasing the number of school leavers in Higher Education. So I worked with young people, finding out about their interests and their hopes for the future. From there, I became a Lecturer in Education Studies, moving up from a junior lecturer to head of postgraduate teaching. As an academic, my key focus was on policy and addressing inequality: I was particularly concerned with how policy decisions could affect students’ lives. After that, I took up a cross-institutional role as Head of Pedagogic Practice and Head of Social Justice at the University of Derby. I focused on the inequalities within teaching: addressing the awarding gap and developing an attainment policy dedicated to eliminating structural inequality. After four years at Derby, I moved to Leeds Trinity to take up my current position.
It’s an ongoing process. At Derby, I had the honour of working with student officers who’d been elected on the campaign of decolonising the curriculum. This was around the time of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, and we wanted to change the narrative. As academics, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions: sometimes you need to flip things on their head to get a new perspective. One of the things that attracted me to Leeds Trinity was its commitment to antiracism; the university has taken a strong stance on Black Lives Matter and decolonising the curriculum. The new directorate was created to look at equity from the perspective of staff as well as students. My remit includes our equality network, which is made up of groups dedicated to equity, diversity, and LGBTQ+ representation. I also sit on the executive committee, which allows me a voice at the highest level of the university.
One of the first things I was asked to do was create an EDI strategy. But I was reluctant at first: too often, EDI just skirts around the edges without creating meaningful change. So instead, I asked the board if I could design a Social Justice framework, and thankfully it was approved. My primary goal for the next year is to implement that across the institution.
You need to take an embedded approach. If people see something as an extra, they’re more reluctant to get involved. We have an excellent program called ‘Our Community, Our Belonging’ to find out which issues interest our students and help build them into the curriculum. We’re also carrying out seed-funded projects which pay students for their time — we’re really trying to build a co-creative pedagogic approach. That has led to an institution-wide initiative called LTU Belong, which has become one of our flagship programs.
At the moment, it’s mental wellbeing. I think the pandemic prompted a conversation about mental health: for a lot of students, coming back to campus and making connections has been a challenge. The cost of living crisis is also having a massive impact, especially for students who need to work to support their studies. I have an assessor role with Student Minds for the Mental Health Charter, which lets me visit other institutions and observe their practices, and that’s helped to shape my approach.
I think the creation of the Office for Students (OfS) has been key. It’s created a regulatory environment and made institutions commit to change. People have been campaigning against institutional racism for years, and now we’re starting to see action across the sector.
People are working from home more often, and there are disparities in who can work remotely and who can’t. So you need to be very deliberate and create regular opportunities for staff to come together. That helps to create a sense of belonging. Recently, we’ve been holding events for special days, and we have a conference coming up which should bring the whole community together.
It all comes down to relationships and passion. You need to show people that you care. Try to see your own place within things and help others to realise their own agency.
My mentor once told me that we have a moral commitment to this work. Equity work can be emotionally draining, but we need to keep pushing forward. It’s important that you don’t try to do it all alone — if you stumble, make sure someone’s there to hold you up.