Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) professionals come from a huge range of backgrounds, bringing with them their unique perspectives on a wide range of issues.
As an academic who has previously trained as a barrister, Dr Zainab Khan is particularly interested in disparities in students’ outcomes and how these might be addressed through evidence-based interventions and approaches.
GoodCourse co-founder Chris Mansfield asks Zainab about what sparked her journey into EDI, and the role of universities in remedying social injustices.
At the start of my academic career, I held a number of management roles. I often worked on activities such as onboarding new students and reviewing exam board data – that was when I was first exposed to student metrics. It was immediately obvious that there were significant disparities in outcomes for students from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds in comparison to their peers.
I then became involved in an early Race Equality Charter self-assessment process. As part of the application, institutions are expected to be open about their race equality data. I was shocked by who the winners and losers were when it came to degree outcomes and the staff pipeline; I began to read more literature on the problem, and seeing the sector-wide trends laid out so clearly was a real eye-opener.
I was shocked by who the winners and losers were when it came to degree outcomes and the staff pipeline...I started to feel that if I didn’t act to help fix the problem, then I was being complicit.
From that point on, I started to feel that if I didn’t act to help fix the problem, then I was being complicit. I was strongly motivated to look more closely at the systemic and institutional problems affecting students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Ideas about social norms and how they influence the law – and conversely how statutory frameworks and regulation impact people’s lives – has always been an area of curiosity and personal interest. When I moved to London Metropolitan University (London Met) three years ago, I got the chance to bring my EDI expertise together with strategic academic leadership, which has been very fulfilling.
A colleague handed me a copy of the Runnymede Trust’s Aiming Higher report many years ago. It’s still a fantastic starting point for understanding racial inequality in Higher Education, including how staff in the academy are treated.
Unfortunately, it can still be hard to secure the resources and funding necessary for different EDI initiatives. But many universities are often very interested in supporting projects that look to improve student outcomes, because they are often obligated to widen participation. With that in mind, I set up a large programme aiming to improve the labour market performance of Black and minoritised graduates.
It’s a fact that for some students, career progression is in part determined by where they were born, what school they went to or by their identity characteristics. Universities still have an obligation to help narrow the gaps, but if we want to make progress, we need to recognise that the playing field isn’t level.
It feels like there is a degree of fatalism when we attach blame for education or employment outcomes to social inequality. There are many conversations happening in Higher Education spaces about how the government views the role of universities in student outcomes, including through consultation on the future of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF).
Universities have an obligation to help reduce social inequalities but, for many students, the odds of success are stacked against them long before they apply to study for a degree. At the same time, students from disadvantaged backgrounds often have fantastic qualities that set them in very good stead for success: traits like determination, grit and ambition, which often aren’t part of the metrics conversation.
At London Met, we fulfil our commitment to social justice through the pursuit of creating an inclusive environment for all of our students – where they feel a deep sense of belonging and connection – by designing curricula that give our students the skills and knowledge they need to affect positive change within their chosen industries. We are also working with local partners to address the challenges facing London to ensure we make a positive contribution to the communities we serve.
Many students know that educational equity is long overdue and are supportive of the agenda. I haven’t experienced much student backlash, but I know this happens in some parts of the Sector. Where there are dissenting voices, work with students as you would your colleagues and take time out to show the data, explain what the research tells us causes disparities, and ask them for their suggestions of what else we could do to make our universities fairer places to work and study.
It’s so important to have a degree of humility. Recognise that you won’t always have the answers and that you can’t be an expert on every part of EDI. Generations before us have led anti-oppressive movements; the road is long.
I admire all of my colleagues at London Met so much. This is a period of significant upheaval and regulatory change for universities – internally there has also been a lot of change for our staff – and they have navigated it with their values and dedication to students as their top priority.
I’d definitely recommend Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Friere. It’s a very useful conversation point, particularly when speaking to colleagues who are new to the role of pedagogy as a form of emancipation.
Enjoyed this interview? You might also like our conversation with Jill Stevenson, Dean of EDI and Director of Student Services at the University of Stirling.