The Interview UK
London South Bank University
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Transformation

Zainab Khan

Promoting social mobility through higher education demands a deep commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), ensuring that institutions reflect the diverse societies they serve. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Zainab Khan, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Academic Transformation at London South Bank University (LSBU). 

In today’s conversation, Zainab returned to The Interview to speak with Co-Host Max Webber, sharing her insights on topics including strategies for creating an inclusive learning climate and embedding EDI into the fabric of an institution.

Zainab's Journey

Max: Welcome back to The Interview! You’ve recently made a move over to LSBU. What are your main goals for this new position?

Thanks for having me back! I’m delighted to be part of the Southbank team. The University’s identity really represents my motivations for wanting to work in higher education – social mobility and the impact that we have on our students and local communities. My role takes me in a slightly different direction from my previous positions. Over the last four or five years, most of my focus has been around education strategy, and EDI leadership, with the aim of improving student outcomes and experiences. Now, my focus is academic planning and resources, while remaining committed to delivering fantastic results for students, colleagues and communities. I will also be supporting the University’s EDI work and teams.

Max: The university sector is under increasing financial pressure. How are you ensuring that critical EDI projects and initiatives are still being prioritised in the current climate? 

I'm not sure anyone has the answers because the factors underlying the financial pressures facing the Sector are significant and taken together they are unprecedented. The reality is that all universities have to look really closely at their operating costs. If we turn back the clock to 2020, there was a sudden spike in institutions being more willing to invest in EDI work as global movements had forced systemic inequalities to be recognised and seen. Now, because of the economic climate, there's a real risk that some of that valuable programming will have to be reduced in scope, limiting the benefit to students and staff communities. The challenge is that good quality EDI work is often longitudinal in nature, which means that you often don't have the quick wins or impact stories – it can take time for these projects to bear fruit. Seeing EDI as ‘add-on’ or nice-to-have activity will always be to the detriment of the work and to those leading the work. The current financial crisis facing the HE sector is yet another reason why EDI work should be embedded into the fabric of the institution – the universities that have made really positive strides in this space are the ones that have embedded EDI in their policies, services, and curriculum. They've moved away from having standalone projects, and instead, encourage everybody in the organisation to understand EDI as part of their role.

Max: How do you go about creating an inclusive environment which creates a sense of belonging for all students?

It comes back to taking an institution-wide approach and embedding EDI into our policies and systems. For me, the starting point is understanding that improving inclusivity for students is often the same work that we need to progress for our staff groups. We need to create a supportive, nurturing, psychologically safe environment where everyone feels valued, able to test new ideas and see themselves represented. In my previous work, I supported efforts to diversify the academic and professional workforce, this is important so students see themselves reflected in the identities of staff. I also encouraged and supported teams to use selection and hiring exercises as opportunities to bring in talented people who had a track record of advancing equity and inclusivity so that you’re building institutional expertise and also increasing the consistency for students’ experience of the staff they are interacting with. The promotion criteria also emphasised the importance and value of contribution to EDI initiatives.

There are many examples of inclusive curriculum approaches, frameworks, and strategies which have positively improved academic outcomes for students from all backgrounds. The student experience is of course broader than the curriculum and the scheduled teaching activities they are involved with. An inclusive environment must extend to our professional and student services – and by this the services need to reflect the diverse identities, needs, and realities of students today. At Southbank many of our students balance work alongside study. Our commitment to inclusivity is reflected in the dedication and behaviours of staff in those services who recognise and work to address the hidden barriers impacting student progression. An inclusive environment will combine celebration and recognition of identity with appropriately robust challenges to behaviours and practices that stand in opposition to equity principles.  

Max: Recent guests have discussed the importance of diversity in leadership. What measures have you put in place to advance this?

There have been multiple studies on the benefits of diversity over a number of years, McKinsey as a notable example, which demonstrates that organisations with diversity at the top table in terms of gender and ethnicity have higher levels of performance. According to those studies, organisations that have greater levels of racial diversity in their C-suite are up to 30% more productive than those that are not diverse. Why wouldn't you want to have that? Especially in this challenging and critical time for Sector leadership? Putting the business case to one side – universities should want to have the best minds at their institutions. If you are leaving out whole communities, you’ll be missing out on some of the best people.

Then there's the small matter of continued relevance. Staff diversity in the Sector, particularly in senior roles, has not kept up with the pace of changes in our student demographics. If we don't have those voices influencing and contributing to strategic decision-making, then we are losing out on perspectives that help ensure our decisions reflect and work for those we serve. There are broader questions to be answered about why this hasn't happened – my feeling is that there isn't sufficient heat underneath the issue and there are no regulatory consequences. If the vast majority of voices that are calling for the diversity of leadership are individuals from minoritised or protected groups, it is never going to result in the sea change that's required. University Boards have a big role to play to oversee the actions of leadership teams and to help drive real change for the Sector.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over the course of your career?

I’ve learnt a lot by observing those I’ve worked with and worked for – positively or otherwise, we are continually showcasing our professional practices and behaviours – impacting those around us. Those in leadership roles have added responsibility to act with care. I’ve taken great inspiration from some incredible people I’ve worked with and continually think about my impact on others’ experience of work- whether through small acts or through the bigger programmes I might be involved with.  

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Max Webber
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