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Challenging the norm in academic recruitment

By Grace Allen, Joanna Mirek-Tooth, Christine Mera & Charlotte Luckhurst.

There is growing recognition across the higher education sector that an institution’s leadership should be representative of wider society. As institutions strive to ensure diversity is championed and that diverse viewpoints are reflected, it is equally important for individual decision-makers to reflect on their own recruitment practice and use their influence, experience and positions to lead positive change to ensure diversity and inclusivity, where their roles will allow. Although we are influenced and led by the institutional culture surrounding us, we share individual and collective responsibility for challenging these norms.

It is within this context that a review of recruitment practice has been undertaken by a project team consisting of academic managers within the Faculty of Business and Law (FBL). The project was premised on the fact that the largest group of stakeholders, after students, are the Associate Lecturers (ALs), also known as tutors. Associate Lecturers are responsible for teaching delivery, where they are the ‘face’ of OU academic staff for students.  The OU has over 4000 ALs, the largest body of academic staff at any UK university. Of these, 95% are from white backgrounds, 92.3% within the Faculty of Business and Law. This is in sharp contrast to the diversity of the OU student body, of whom 14% are from non-white backgrounds, a percentage which is reflective of the UK population as a whole.

As the student population is progressively increasing in diversity, it is recognised that HEIs need to focus more on addressing the awarding gap between white and black and ethnic minority students. Therefore, the focus is rightly shifting from the student to the institutional barriers and inequalities of the awarding institution, rather than ‘improving’ or ‘fixing’ the student (Advance, 2021).  Supporting this, a 2019 report identified five steps to improve black and ethnic minority student outcomes, one of which being ‘developing racially diverse and inclusive environments’. Within this research, student participants across 99 universities were asked about relevant contributing factors to any ethnicity attainment gaps – the highest response (87%) was the lack of HE role models representing all ethnic groups. The research goes on to identify that having a more diverse workforce is a key factor to addressing the attainment gap (Universities UK, 2019). Additionally, we cannot ignore the positive impact that working in diverse environments with people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds can have on all students living and working in a multicultural society, or those who will enter a globalised business world (Arday, 2019).

These findings, amongst others, influenced the project to explore what can be done to address the disparity between the diversity of the student body and that of Associate Lecturers, who are critical to student success. The project also sits in the context of the faculty’s strategic priorities to ‘enable our students to succeed’ and ‘making a positive difference for our people’. In this project we identified potential barriers within the faculty’s AL recruitment practice and provided recommendations to enhance our recruitment processes with the objective of developing a more inclusive environment within our AL body.

The starting point for the project was to engage an external consultant who completed a critical review of our Level 1 recruitment processes, from shortlisting to onboarding. This was followed by a quantitative analysis of the data from the October 2020 FBL recruitment cycle. The third stage included further investigation into the experiences of existing Associate Lecturers through an anonymous survey, and follow-up interviews.

The recruitment data shows a relatively high number of applications from applicants who self-identified as black or ethnic minority, 19% of the 1,113 applications received. As these applicants are progressed through the recruitment cycle, there are significant gaps at each stage, between white and non-white candidates. As a consequence, only 14 of black and ethnic minority applications received a contract, representing 1.3% of the initial applications.

The findings from the third stage, survey and interviews, were developed into recommendations and shared with the recruiting managers within the faculty. The results were positive in most areas, attributed by some respondents to the support and good relationships that these individuals have with their manager. However, the findings did also uncover quite a bit of inconsistent practice across the faculty. Specifically, it was clear that participants found phone interviews (within the last year) quite challenging and commented on the many logistical issues with travelling a distance to Milton Keynes for a face-to-face interview. The consensus was that an online interview using cameras removes the feeling of distance and was a more welcoming approach. This may help to avoid potential barriers in communication, providing the ability to pick up on non-verbal cues and feedback throughout the interview. It was clear that visibility was important regardless of ethnicity of the panels.

Furthermore, the findings highlighted how these individuals felt during the process. For example, some respondents spoke about the challenges they face across the sector of being interviewed by a white panel and being the only person of colour in the room. Every effort should be made to have a representative panel in line with good practice examples within the sector. This is perhaps less achievable until we have increased the proportion of diverse representation within our staff, however some respondents offered examples from other HEIs, including involving students.

There were revealing insights into the extent of pre-interview preparation and tasks that candidates were expected to undertake and the proportionality of these in relation to the role itself. Further exploration of this is required, in relation to recruiting practice as well as potential barriers on applicants from diverse backgrounds.

Of course, we do also need to recognise that black and ethnic minority staff are not a homogenous group, and more consideration needs to be given to different characteristics within various ethnic groups recognition of values and skills that diversity brings (Johnson, anon).

Alongside these recommendations, our research supports that it is of utmost importance that we first challenge personally held stereotypes and perceptions about what the ‘normal’ profile of an OU Associate Lecturer is and consider instead who it could be. This would then allow us to benefit from the pool of incredible talent that exists across the HE sector and in professional practice. This research has also uncovered the need for institutional-wide change to structural and cultural ingrained practices and processes.

Within the full research report, all these recommendations and further findings will be explored in greater detail.


This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or The Open University.

Charlotte Luckhurst

Charlotte Luckhurst

Charlotte Luckhurst has been a Student Experience Manager in Law and Business and an Associate Lecturer in Law since 2019. Prior to that, she led Law Programmes at a business school and was a module leader and lecturer in public law, human rights and employment law. Having studied as a mature student herself, Charlotte is passionate about supporting students in a widening participation environment and supporting students of all ages and backgrounds to achieve their study goals.

Christine Mera

Christine Mera

Christine Mera is a Lecturer and Student Experience Manager (Business) in the Faculty of Business and Law.

Christine is also a Visiting Lecturer on business programmes.

Grace Allen

Grace Allen

Grace Allen is a Lecturer and Assistant Head of Student Experience (Law) in the Faculty of Business and Law.

Grace is also an Associate Lecturer on the business programme and Practice Tutor.

Joanna Mirek-Tooth

Joanna Mirek-Tooth

Joanna Mirek-Tooth is a Student Experience Manager (Business) in the Faculty of Business and Law.

Joanna is also an Associate Lecturer in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies.