The human cost of funding cuts: diversity declines among college leaders

Anthony Bravo believes he would never have been appointed principal of Basingstoke College without the support of a government bursary to train and recruit black staff into senior management posts.

“There were no opportunities to progress for non-white leaders and managers,” he says. 

“My principal wouldn’t pay for my leadership training because there was someone else he reckoned deserved it more, even though they were near to retirement. Only when I came up with the funds from the Black Leadership Initiative (BLI) would he let me go – he could hardly refuse.”

Bravo was overlooked numerous times and suffered so many rejections that he was about to quit further education when an offer finally came. He was not alone: back in 2000, the Network of Black and Asian Professionals (NBAP) had numerous testimonies from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff frustrated in their attempts to enter management.

It wasn’t until the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 2001 that any significant improvements were made. A Commission on Black Staff in Further Education revealed the extent of the problem. At the time of publication Michael Peters, chair of the commission, said they found that fewer than one in 20 colleges had a race equality policy and only 16% had any black or Asian managers. He was concerned that colleges did not take racial discrimination claims seriously enough and that the lack of successful role models for black and Asian students led to low aspirations and underachievement.

Government-backed initiatives to raise awareness and improve training for BAME staff through the BLI saw the number of black principals rise from four in 2002 to 17 in 2012. There was also significantly higher representation at all levels of management and clear indications of improved student attainment. Now, however, those hard-fought opportunities are disappearing. The deep spending cuts and wholesale deregulation under the coalition government have removed the ladders and monitoring that underpinned progress.

Latest official figures show diversity is in decline. There are now just 14 BAME college principals; if the numbers appropriately reflected the ethnic composition of the student population that should be 51. To get a more detailed picture is fraught with difficulty, according to the NBAP; workforce data on ethnic minority employment in colleges, compiled by the Education and Training Foundation(ETF), is of little use because the return of figures is voluntary. Only one in three colleges now submit data – many others say they no longer have the time, staff, resources or requirement to do it.

detailed research study from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS) in 2013 warned about the threat funding cuts posed to the gains. Reduced resources were already taking their toll, according to the report, which said that progress in recruiting more BAME college principals “may have stalled”. The report made extensive recommendations to sustain the initiative and called for a stronger focus on under-representation not only in college management but also in governing bodies, the inspectorate and national funding agencies.

But with the ETF replacing LSIS as the improvement body, and government funds cut from £147m to around £18m, the ETF said it lacked the money to sustain BLI programmes. Where funding had once included a three-year £600,000 pilot initiative, the BLI was reduced to a £35,000 training bursary. All equality and diversity initiatives – whether for ethnic minorities, women or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups – were rolled into one. Critics suggested this increased the competition for limited resources.

Nevertheless, the ETF has set an aspirational target for college leadership and management to reflect the ethnic make-up of the student population by 2020. College leaders and managers, however, say such goals are hampered by the lack of a clear strategy. Anthony Bravo said: “The idea of 37 new black principals by 2020, that’s not going to happen. At the moment, the numbers are going down. Now there is no money, the only pragmatic answer I can see is to make equality and diversity an Ofsted-limiting grade factor. That would at least frighten people into action.”

Rajinder Mann, chief executive of the NBAP, calls for stronger support for the mentoring, support networks and induction programmes – hallmarks of the government-backed schemes of old. “It’s about valuing diversity. There needs to be a clear commitment from the top in our sector, with targeted interventions. The last thing we want is tokenism, to be accepted because we are black. 

“The ETF targets are not realistic at present; they are described as ‘aspirational’ and ‘stretch targets’. But you need a national strategy, a mechanism, to underpin that. Don’t give me funding just to upskill some individuals because that won’t change the organisation and there will simply be greater resentment from those who lose out. In the long run this is more damaging as it raises aspirations which leads to frustration if there is no progression.”

The argument for “organisational reform” and investment in diversity training was central to the McKinsey Diversity Matters report last autumn. Mann says: “They pointed out the statistically significant relationship between a more diverse leadership and better financial performance, with ethnicity playing a significant part.” Her view that such spending is investment not cost echoes findings of both the Macpherson and LSIS reports and supported the idea of “ringfencing funding for the BLI”.

Dame Asha Khemka, principal of West Nottinghamshire College, says that awareness takes one only so far. After a rapid rise from part-time lecturer to vice principal in 10 years, the next step proved very hard. “Looking back on my career I cannot underestimate how valuable the BLI Shadowing and BLI High Fliers’ Programme were to me. Not only did they raise my profile with senior figures within FE, but they enabled me to explore the policy and the mechanics of leadership first-hand.”

For Andy Forbes, principal of Hertford Regional Colleges and a leading member on the race equality working group, strong empathy and leadership from central government are essential. “We had strong support for the BLI from central government, sector skills councils and the funding agencies, but after the banking crisis and arrival of the coalition government almost all resources drained away. There is a very small amount compared with the funding going in when you felt a tangible sense of progress.”

His worry is that “racial issues are acknowledged but not acted on until there are riots”. He speaks from the experience of having been a senior manager at Oldham College during the 2001 race riots – the result, he says, of extensive deprivation and poor race relations. “My concern now is that the latest Muslim concerns and whole Prevent agenda has obscured and sidelined the real race issues. I’m not sure central government understands this.”

The further education leadership and management series is funded by Zurich Municipal. All content is editorially independent except for pieces labelled “brought to you by”. Find out more here.

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