Committing to Diversity

At Coventry University in the U.K., school leaders constantly monitor the school’s progress on attracting and welcoming staff and students from all backgrounds.
Committing to Diversity

BUSINESS SCHOOLS THAT want to design fair and effective policies of equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) must begin with two crucial steps. First, they need to articulate the groups that fall outside the advantaged group, so they can acknowledge the potential for discrimination and take steps to avoid it. And, second, they must understand their specific goals in creating EDI policies, whether to support women in the #MeToo era, promote greater innovation and productivity, or simply reach out to talent pools that have been overlooked so that their communities can more closely mirror the broader society.

However, diversity is highly contextual, and diversity policies and objectives vary greatly by nation. In Scandinavian countries, gender diversity is a priority. In India and Malaysia, policies center around caste and ethnic origins. In both Malaysia and South Africa, they focus on the disadvantaged majority, while in Nigeria, the emphasis is on tribal diversity. In North America and Western Europe, both gender and ethnicity are at the heart of equity policies.

Because most business schools recruit from around the globe, they need policies designed for both in-country “intra-national” groups and international “cross-national” students. They also must look at other distinctions: For example, how does a wealthy international student compare with a poor national student of the same ethnicity? Do wealthy students feel included in that ethnicity, or does their wealth put them in a different category?

At Coventry Business School, we have tried to conduct a regression analysis to look for relationships between the variables that drive diversity within our own teaching and learning structure, so that we can design more targeted EDI initiatives. But even schools that aren’t able to carry out such an analysis can take thoughtful and considerate steps toward creating sensible policies and initiatives.


Coventry University’s history goes back to 1843, and over the decades, the school has grown as a number of independent institutions merged. Coventry University proper was established in 1992 as a wave of polytechnics in the United Kingdom were rebranded as universities. One of the goals of forming these 40 or so new universities was to make higher education accessible to approximately 50 percent of high school graduates.

In many ways, those universities created post-1992 have greater diversity than the long-established institutions, which often are more homogeneous. But the U.K. government has launched initiatives designed to address racial inequities across higher education. Soon all universities will be required to account for how they will improve outcomes for underrepresented students, particularly those that are black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME).

In Coventry’s case, about 60 percent of the university students are BAME, compared to about 13 percent in the general population. The proportion is even higher at the business school, although this figure is slightly skewed by the presence of international students, who make up nearly 40 percent of our student population. The gender balance of students at the university is 50/50, and approximately 8 percent report a disability. It’s especially pleasing that close to half of all students are the first in their families to attend university.

On the staff side, the numbers are not as high. Nevertheless, at the university level, 30 percent are BAME; the percentage is 40 percent at the business school, in part because 40 percent of the staff comes from outside of the U.K. About 5 percent of the university staff reports a disability. The overall gender balance favors women, though this ratio is reversed at more senior management levels, which are more likely, as one so nicely says, to be “pale, stale, and male.”

We want diverse and engaged faculty and staff to serve as role models for minority students.

We make sure we monitor our percentages. We also keep our policies up to date, find ways to recruit more diverse students, and focus on retaining the ones who have already enrolled. At the same time, we make efforts to keep our faculty and staff diverse and engaged, so they can serve as role models for the minority students who choose our school.


To ensure that we continue to seek out a diverse student and staff population, the university reviews and updates its Policy Statement of Commitment every three years. The statement currently affirms the university’s commitment to promoting equality and refusing to tolerate discrimination on the grounds of “age, disability, ethnicity (including race, colour, caste and nationality), gender identity, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.”

The central university policy is mirrored at the business school. At both levels, there is an infrastructure of staff and student networks aimed at various groups, such as those with disabilities, BAME individuals, LGBT+ individuals, caregivers, and parents. These networks are overseen by formal Equality and Diversity Committees that are chaired by the dean in the business school and by the provost at the university level.

The policies are always subject to revision. For instance, in 2016, we extended the remit of the LGBT+ network to create the Trans Equality Policy, which allows transgender students to change their names at the registry office, take time off their studies for medical reasons, have access to the toilets and changing rooms of their chosen gender, and retrofit graduation certificates appropriately. These students also have access to all the “dignity and respect” procedures outlined in a formal policy designed to keep the institution free of harassment or bullying.

In addition, the university acknowledges equality and diversity efforts through an awards celebration that is now in its eighth year. The university also observes celebration months, particularly for the LBGT+, black, and disabled communities. Coventry has been recognized as a Stonewall Diversity Champion by the nonprofit lobbying and support group Stonewall, and we have signed up to be a Disability Confident Employer, a U.K. government designation for companies that recruit and retain people with disabilities and health conditions. We are accredited by Athena SWAN, which recognizes organizations that support gender equality within higher education.


Because of Coventry’s long legacy of inclusion, potential students from diverse backgrounds can see that the university already has a wide range of students, faculty, and alumni who can serve as role models. In that sense, diversity becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even so, Coventry continually pours more effort into recruiting diverse students. The university conducts extensive outreach programs that target a variety of communities near its location in the U.K.’s Midlands and beyond. It also oversees a body called the Better Futures Multi-Academy Trust, which, among other things, provides students from certain secondary schools access to the university.

Some of these students become interested in the business school—but they also become familiar with other faculties of the university. In particular, they gain access to CU Coventry, a wholly owned subsidiary of the university, designed for students interested in seeking professional qualifications or pursuing undergraduate degrees on a part-time basis. Students who complete a foundation year of studies, designed to get them up to “university speed,” may also transfer to the business school.-

The CU pathway has proven to be successful for nontraditional students, such as those who have been in foster care in their youth. Although this approach is a small-scale project in terms of student recruitment, it is an especially satisfying one.


It is well and good to successfully attract a diverse group of students, but it is equally important to make sure that students have a positive experience and high graduation rates.

To this end, Coventry University introduced a range of equality objectives in 2012. There were multiple goals: to ensure that all identifiable groups had equally positive outcomes on National Student Satisfaction surveys or staff surveys, as appropriate; to increase the diversity of staff at senior levels; and to extend efforts for data collection, monitoring, and analysis so we could better identify significant gaps in service.

The school also wanted to increase the positive progression of BAME students through their studies so that they ultimately would achieve grades and graduation rates comparable to students in other groups. While we have made progress, we still see disparities. About 8 percent of white students, 10 percent of Chinese students, 12 percent of South Asian students, and 16 percent of black students do not progress successfully to the next year. At graduation, 33 percent of white students, 20 percent of aggregated Asian students, and only 11 percent of black students achieve “Firsts”—effectively graduating with the highest grades.

Unpicking this is a challenge. We monitor the U.K.’s National Student Satisfaction survey data in great detail, and we see that Coventry’s progression gaps between white and BAME students are mirrored by these groups at the national level, particularly in their opinions about teaching satisfaction, learning opportunities, assessment and feedback, academic support, the learning community, and student voice. In terms of course organization and management, as well as learning resources, there are no differences in satisfaction levels between the different groups of Coventry students. From a gender perspective of satisfaction, there are also no differences in the statistics. In both the national survey and Coventry’s internal surveys, students from the U.K. and non-E.U. countries have about the same level of satisfaction, while E.U. students are less satisfied overall.

Even though Coventry’s statistics are so similar to national averages, we would like to see all students at our school exhibit equally high levels of satisfaction. Thus, this year we have launched a major initiative to meet with students from various communities to brainstorm ideas and initiatives that can make them more satisfied with their studies at Coventry and improve their outcomes.

In the U.K.'s main stock market index, there are fewer women CEOs than CEOs named Dave.

We have found that inspiration for change can come from somewhat unexpected places. For instance, business schools could learn valuable lessons from the 2019 recipients of the Nobel Prize for Economics—Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee, and Michael Kremer—whose research explores ways to better the lives of poor people around the world. They conducted a series of random control trials with children in Kenya and India to discover how to improve education outcomes for students who were falling behind. They found evidence that the performance of these students improved when they had access to additional after-school tutoring and online revision, and when they were grouped according to their abilities. While these studies were conducted with younger students, the first two approaches certainly could be implemented in higher education.


As much as we want our students to feel welcome at Coventry University, we want staff to feel an equal sense of belonging. While we have a respectable percentage of faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds, at the more senior levels of the university the balance is no better than it is in industry—and the numbers in industry are not encouraging. A November 7, 2019, article in The Economist noted that the share of female executives in large U.S. and U.K. firms went from 12 percent to only 14 percent between 2015 and 2018. Amusingly and sadly, in the U.K.’s main stock market index, the FTSE, there are fewer women CEOs than CEOs named Dave.

For other underrepresented groups, the picture is no brighter. The same article noted that the share of executives who were ethnic minorities increased from 12 percent to just 13 percent in the same time period. Black men in the U.S. fare particularly poorly. In 2017, only 3.4 percent of managers were black men— about half of the percentage of black men in the general population of the U.S.

At Coventry Business School, we are taking deliberate steps to improve the percentages of minorities in management positions. The EDI Board—which is chaired by the dean and includes a mix of invited and self-selecting staff members—launched an unconscious bias training program for senior staff involved in recruitment, faculty management, and promotion.

At the beginning, the board set an agenda that involved bringing in speakers who could discuss a wide range of challenges related to gender and ethnicity, as well as less visible disabilities such as autism and dyslexia. But soon debates became unproductive, and board members struggled to find a way forward. Then, university-level workshops and a conference on communications and staff belonging gave us the idea of adding health and well-being to the issues we addressed at the school level.

It made a huge difference. Staff were engaged, animated, and ready to give voice to a whole range of issues that had a health and well-being focus. We started to talk about disability, mental health, racism, and equality as part of a wider agenda that focuses on the solutions rather than the problems. This approach of creating an environment of inclusivity for all has enriched our discussions about EDI. We still don’t have all the answers, but we’ve made a good a start.


Our diversity efforts continue to be inspired by people from all over the globe. At a recent conference in London, one of the speakers was Baroness Ruby McGregor Smith, the former CEO of the MITIE Group, an outsourcer and energy supply company with a staff of 54,000. Smith is the only BAME female to lead an FTSE 100 company. After sharing her own story, she made a compelling case for the moral and economic grounds for taking action on diversity.

She also made five recommendations that universities and business schools could follow to increase inclusivity:

Publish data on gender and ethnicity, and monitor progress. Pearson’s law states that, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.”

Recognize those with potential. Support talented individuals with mentoring, coaching, career planning, and personal development—effectively providing a road map to the top.

Use purchasing power to effect change. Make sure the school’s preferred suppliers support EDI issues.

Look at recruitment practices. Do universities use diverse panels as a way to produce diverse shortlists of candidates? How do they position job advertisements to encourage interest from a wide range of applicants?

Learn how to talk about gender, race, and disability issues. Even as we implement these approaches at our university, we know there are no easy solutions. So many factors affect EDI. Wealth, power, and privilege are concentrated with the few, and we must work to extend advantages to the many.

It takes time and resources to create a sense of equality, equity, and belonging for all. But schools make time for what they believe is important, and EDI is essential to Coventry University’s mission of creating access for a broad base of students. Only by achieving this objective will we be able to realize our long-term mission “to create better futures”—for everyone associated with the school.

Kai Peters is pro-vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Business and Law at Coventry University in the U.K. Heather McLaughlin is academic dean of the university’s Faculty of Business and Law, and Ian Dunn is provost of Coventry University.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

Related Reading

Driven by Difference

Creating a Sense of Belonging

Creating the All-Inclusive Campus

¿Son Las Mujeres Iguales?

The Inclusive Curriculum

Learning Other Cultures

Diverse Voices, Personal Stories