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What has being enterprising got to do with equality, diversity and inclusion?

  • 1 December 2022
  • By Ken Sloan

This blog was written by Professor Ken Sloan, Vice-Chancellor, Harper Adams University. It is the 11th in our series on leadership in partnership with the National Centre for Entrepreneurship in Education (NCEE).

Prior to becoming Vice-Chancellor at Harper Adams University, I served as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Monash University in Australia. The purpose of my role at Monash was to promote an even greater enterprising culture across the University and to identify and address barriers to enabling that culture to flourish, all with the aim of delivering better outcomes for the University and its constituent parts. This is exactly the same priority I lead on across my new institution. Like everyone, we are focused on delivering excellent education and research, maximising the impact of what we do, securing our future sustainability, and enhancing our contribution and relevance to local, national and international communities. Yet, there is more.

Both at Monash and Harper Adams, the institutions are clear on what they do and why they do it. For Monash, these goals are captured succinctly in a new strategic plan, Impact 2030, where the people and capabilities of the University are focusing on three challenges of the age: climate change, geopolitical security and thriving communities. At Harper Adams, our priorities include:

  • the relentless search for solutions to feeding the global population while also protecting the planet;
  • ensuring animal and environmental wellbeing are secured; 
  • delivering economically and socially viable outcomes; and
  • exploiting the potential of data, AI and technology to be transformational, while also delivering solutions that are economically accessible to and dependable for the organisations that make our planetary food system work. 

Our new strategic plan will launch in early 2023.

What became clear to me at both Monash and now at Harper Adams was that the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of an institution’s activities can only get you so far when it comes to being enterprising and entrepreneurial. To deliver transformational outcomes you also need to focus on the ‘how’ and the ‘who’. It is only by looking at the ‘how’ and the ‘who’ that you can unleash what it means to be truly inclusive and collaborative. 

It is almost 20 years since the Lambert Report on University Business Collaboration was published. The report looked into the extent to which Universities were collaborating effectively with business in research and development, and the extent to which universities were equipping graduates with the skills that the economy needed. The report highlighted the need for the university sector’s business-facing and enterprise-oriented activities to be as mainstreamed as education and research. Surprisingly, in the section on skills and people, the only reference to enabling this within institutions was a comment that ‘The Government also needs to ensure that the structures within which universities operate are sufficiently responsive to encourage these collaborations to occur’ (p.115). There was no reference to what it meant for people, culture or capability in the institutions. Just structures.

Twenty years later, we take it for granted that effective collaboration with business, and the development of enterprising and entrepreneurial outcomes, are the core purposes of most universities. Not, in my view, because we have moved to a more marketised and arguably consumerised model of regulating institutions, but more because institutions have needed to demonstrate that their civic licence to operate remains valid. Making a tangible and valued contribution to a university’s ‘place’, its local communities, its region and our nation’s prosperity is one way to achieve that. 

Last week, through its School of Sustainable Food and Farming Harper Adams released an action plan to boost productivity and innovation in British agriculture. Chaired by Lord Curry, the plan argued that the path from scientific discovery to application remains fragmented. It highlights the important role of the UK Agri-Tech centres but argues that to deliver food security requires agriculture to attract talent from all sectors of society. It must be both enterprising and inclusive.

So, what has the shift towards being enterprising got to do with equality, diversity and inclusion?  I argue that a truly enterprising and entrepreneurial university is one where all its people have the opportunity to contribute, and also where people of any background have the opportunity to participate. The solutions universities are seeking to develop with and for society are intended to be beneficial for all people, so the route to identify and curate those solutions should mobilise a university’s entire talent base. This cannot be the case where an institution’s equality, diversity and inclusion ambitions are not being fulfilled. 

I recently authored a book chapter which explored the impact of appointing ‘outsiders’ into leadership roles at universities. I explored the lived experiences of three main types of ‘outsider’:

  • individuals who had migrated to take on a leadership role in another country;
  • individuals who had followed a very different path into their role but from within the higher education sector; and
  • individuals who had been appointed to a leadership role from outside the sector.

The experiences of these individuals were highly variable. Some had experienced a positive transition into their role and performed at or beyond expectations. Some had found the adjustment littered with hurdles and barriers, intentional and unintentional, which affected their contribution. A number were professionally harmed by the experience and left the organisations with lower professional standing than that with which they arrived. The reasons varied but the most common factor identified for success or failure was the extent to which the organisational culture encouraged them to belong, encouraged their new and different perspectives to be heard, and established a licence for them to operate and contribute. Another factor was whether organisations had adequate systems and data to track the progress of appointed ‘outsiders’ and could see and act when their progress was being affected by the actions of others.

I was struck by a question. If people appointed to leadership roles found they could not ‘fit’ or contribute, what must that also say for those elsewhere in the organisation? So many lost or unheard contributions must surely limit the enterprising and entrepreneurial outcomes that an institution can deliver? Simply looking at different data and asking different questions could protect institutions from losing valuable talent unnecessarily. It would also ensure the contributions of these talents could be mobilised.

At Harper Adams, our focus is on curating impactful graduates and solutions for business and society. It is a primary reason why people work and study here. The University is widely regarded as entrepreneurial and enterprising: come and see our Hands-Free Farm if you want to see enterprise in action. I will not accept, however, that we are as enterprising as we could be until our equality, diversity and inclusion ambitions are also fulfilled. Until then, there is always the chance that a voice that could make a transformational contribution to what we do will not be heard. It also means that someone who could access a Harper Adams education and make a valuable contribution to our industries and society might not be able to do so. That is why inclusion is and must remain one of key our strategic priorities and will be a basis on which our future impact and our enterprising progress will rightly be evaluated.

The series so far:

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