Sarah Guerra, Director of King’s College London’s Diversity & Inclusion, spearheads the College’s strategic vision and implementation of diversity, equality and inclusion for the whole campus community.
Her leadership serves as a catalyst for organisational cultural innovation and generates activity that delivers against King’s ambitions to provide an extraordinary staff and student experience. We spoke with her to discuss the state of equality, diversity & inclusivity in UK higher education.
Why is diversity and inclusivity more important than ever in higher education today?
For me, diversity is a way of describing each person’s unique ability to participate. We know from so many studies and our own personal experience that different people have different levels of opportunity to do this. That, combined with the fact that we live in a complex, increasingly interconnected world with continually developing challenges—political, environmental, economic—means we need every bit of creativity, talent, and insight that we as a human race have to offer. We cannot afford to let any of it go to waste. The research higher education carries out is one of the ways we can meet these global challenges, as well as the education we provide developing the leaders and thinkers of the future. Ensuring that anyone with the talent and drive to become an academic can do so is vital to tackling global challenges.
What role do you believe academic staff composition has on the student experience?
Some may feel it is a cliché to say you can’t be what you can’t see! A colleague refined it recently to: you can’t be what you can’t imagine. Academic staff composition plays so many roles in the student experience, research quality, and global impact. Who you learn from becoming your role models and the people who help set and grow your aspirations. How much you connect with those around you plays into your self-belief, and self-belief has a direct impact on how “good” you are on any given day. So, the make-up of all university staff impacts the ability for students to feel empathized with and to feel related to, and these things influence students’ creativity, effort, confidence—which all feed into their achievement. Looking from a research angle the wider the variety of perspectives and inputs into research the more creative, informed and tested it is to find new answers or ways of solving the multiplicity of challenges in the world today.
What can institutions do to proactively hire a more diverse academic staff?
Where do I start? There is so much that we can do!
We need to make equality, diversity, and inclusion business-critical—like finance, like health and safety—and appoint Chief Diversity Officers and set KPI’s akin to any other key business measure. We must name the problem— and have good data that tells us exactly where we are.
We must invest in everyone we put in a management or leadership position: first recruit them specifically testing their inclusive capability, then continue to develop them to maintain it.
We must be clear about how important diversity (in all its forms) is in every manifestation of our universities. In all our policies, processes, documents, marketing—in writing, in imagery, at events—in all we say and do.
We must invest in great HR professionals and those with diversity and inclusion expertise, as well as review all our recruitment and selection processes—starting with what we currently define to be talent or merit and then reviewing all job descriptions and working patterns. Any time anyone is thinking about something new that needs doing, they have the opportunity to think about how to innovate and get a different kind of person in—rather than following our same, old patterns. We need to understand whether candidates are applying and if so what is happening them through the recruitment and selection journey; and, alongside this, we need to train all those who are doing selection to do it as inclusively and lacking in bias as possible.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
How do you think institutions can address the student achievement gap? What recommendations would you give?
Much of what I said for academic representation can be translated to students too; addressing academic representation is a big part of how we impact the student experience and achievement. One of the factors crucial to student achievement is students feeling like they belong—feeling that they are valued and respected – that everyone around them at their institution expects and wants them to do their best. This sets conditions that enable all students to thrive: people who feel comfortable in their learning environment will be able to access the resources they need, feel able to ask for help and take risks—all of which will lead them to be the best they can be. A key area that is emerging more and more is around how to ensure campuses are harassment-free and good quality, lawful dialogue, and debate enabled without shutting out voices or creating hostile environments. Universities need to attend to what this means in practice to help students develop but also ensure they feel safe.
And, by the way, don’t forget about professional services staff —they are just as important to the functioning of a university and the student experience as academics!
If you could wave a magic wand and fix one diversity and inclusion-focused practice or process that you think higher education could do better, what would it be?
If I had a magic wand, I would change how siloed universities are. I’d find a magic way of creating connections and helping people see how many different angles and facets most issues have. Then, people at the university would realize the need to address issues in a more coordinated way and see that if we access the breadth of our resources and talents we will make much more satisfying, sustainable and swift progress.
What role do you think technology can play to increase diversity and inclusion in higher education?
It plays such an important role. There is the obvious in terms of supporting the collection, monitoring and analyzing of data and insight, as well as how it supports recruitment, onboarding, training, and development. But I think there is so much more potential even than this—universities are massively complex and each internal component needs to link up and function in synchronicity with other parts, a bit like a human body. I believe technology can really help with this if we invest in understanding what it can do and are willing to open up our minds to how to work differently.