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Choosing our target well: Creative diversity at UAL

Portrait of James Purnell
  • Written byJames Purnell
  • Published date22 April 2021
Portrait of James Purnell
James Purnell. Image courtesy of BBC

On 21 April 2021, UAL pledged that 30% of our staff will be people of colour within three years. This will apply to our workforce overall and, crucially, to every college and department. I want to describe how we selected that target and how we propose to implement it, for the benefit of anyone else who is reviewing their targets.

UAL’s core idea is that creativity is essential to solving the world’s problems. So it’s essential that we are able to understand the world from different perspectives. The 30% target means that our workforce will look like our student body – certainly for the first time since we became a university in 2004 and perhaps longer.

A diverse workforce has a different creative response

This is about basic fairness. But it’s also about effectiveness: there’s plenty of evidence that a diverse workforce does better quality work. By becoming more diverse, our creative response is likely to be different, better, and also more resilient.

Most public sector organisations have diversity targets, as do many companies in the private sector. But there’s surprisingly little public guidance on how to select and implement your target. So I want to provide some insight on what went into the target and our general philosophy for implementing it.

The first stage was to establish our baseline. We are fortunate to have good data on the demographics of our permanent staff, and know that our overall ethnic diversity stands at 23%. But there is significant variation between different parts of UAL – for example, academic staff diversity is much lower than for our professional services staff. Our first goal for the target was that it should incentivise all parts of the university to act.

Selecting an appropriate target is complex

UAL faces a wide range of demographic reference points. We are a national institution based in one of the most diverse cities in the UK. And we are deeply invested, as the flagship specialist university, in the creative industries – we pride ourselves in our industry links. And we needed to select a target that made sense in relation to our baseline.

We weighed these factors carefully. We might reasonably expect to reflect the population of the nation, of London, or of the specialist institutions that serve the creative industries. There’s a 34 percentage point difference between these different baselines, and there would be good arguments for selecting any of them.

In the end, though, a teaching university is designed to focus on the future, in the shape of our students. We realised our core goal was for our workforce to be at least as diverse as our students. Our current percentage of ethnic minority Home students is 28% and set to grow under our Access and Participation Plan.

And implementation requires freedom within a framework

Target-setting requires a combination of knowledge, ethics and bloody mindedness… because otherwise you end up in thrall to the status quo.

To my mind, there are two ways of going about it.

You can do a lot of the work upfront through a classic project management approach, understanding baselines and nuancing plans. We considered setting different targets for each area and specifying from the centre how they were to be achieved. But this would mean trying to do people’s work for them, which is the classic trap of central management in a knowledge organisation.

The other approach is what I like to call freedom within a framework – set the overall goal but then trust your teams to work out how to get there.  This approach rewards innovation, and provides the psychological safety for experiment and risk.  Most of all, it places the power to act where the information is – teams will know best the situation they face and what to do about it.

Thirty percent is a demanding target but one we’re confident we can achieve. We have set the same target for individual colleges and directorates as we have for the whole university. Meeting the target will place us above the current average for universities in London and put us in the top handful of universities in terms of diversity.

I grew up in France, and went to a state school that was also an international school.  The students came from all over the world, and the conversations were enriched by our diversity.  But this was the 1980s and my school mates were entirely white – and the same was true of nearly all my work experience in the last three decades.

In BBC Radio, I made it my mission to have a more diverse leadership team – as a basic matter of fairness, but also effectiveness.  Once we got there, it transformed how well we worked.  Of course, that was visible around issues of race and diversity – the conversations were more confident, more insightful, more nuanced. I hope our actions benefited as a consequence.  But it was also tangible across the board – a diverse team is a more effective team.

UAL starts with a more diverse workforce but that means we have an opportunity to pioneer and lead, and I can’t wait to see how our colleagues achieve that.

James Purnell, President & Vice Chancellor