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Perspectives: Yasmina Mallam-Hassam on diversity and inclusion

Posted by Vanessa Boddington on 06 August, 2020

How the digital disruption of Higher Education can boost inclusivity – and why it matters for your institution and your students

If your university is responding to the disruption of 2020 by investing in technology, it is worth considering whether your approach can boost inclusivity and diversity.

Higher education has always been more challenging for certain groups of students, because of gender, ethnicity, economic background. “Evidence suggests that an imbalance in diversity can lead to individuals from ethnic minorities feeling less included within their educational environment”, with research suggesting that BAME students’ sense of belonging can impact their university experience, including their likelihood of dropping out and overall attainment. In 2020, the gap in progression rates by age 19 between Free School Meal and non-Free School Meal pupils has increased to 18.8 percentage points - up 0.2 percentage points since last year and the highest gap since 2006/07.

For many, the current crisis may exacerbate the barriers they face in terms of reaching university in the first place, as well as making it harder for them to achieve the learning and employment outcomes they strive for. However, the technology that is essential for robust, high quality, remote teaching can also help improve the experience and outcomes for these groups.

Online textbooks and courseware provide additional scaffolding to allow students to manage any knowledge gaps, and to build confidence. Provision as standard, through university systems supports affordability without stigmatising students. Research appears to suggest that while this supports all students, there is a more noteable impact on students from low income families.

Streamlining administration and provision of data, allowing more time and the possibility of a targeted approach to nurturing those students who need it. A sense of belonging is more important to all students, but is valued more highly by first-in-family students, whose families have not attended university. Online learning encourages students to focus on common ground and shared interests, as “in virtual teams, your individual identity is less tangible. Your appearance, ethnicity, generation and gender are less visible.

Incorporating asymmetric learning, making education more flexible, and therefore more accessible to those with additional responsibilities such as paid work and caring for others. ”With an increased focus on life-long learning and reskilling the workforce, older students - some with families and caring or work responsibilities to prioritise - will make up an ever-larger percentage of the potential student population.” EdTech can not only encourage these students to apply to your institution, but it also keeps them engaged and supported throughout their learning.

Use of online communication tools and EdTech in general “undoubtedly improves digital literacy”, an essential set of skills to compete in today’s workplace. “Digital skills are essential entry requirements for two-thirds of UK SOC occupations and carry with them a wage differential over non-digital roles. These occupations account for 82% of online job vacancies.

Of course, EdTech is not a silver bullet, but can work alongside other initiatives that institutions are implementing such as employment policies, increasing cultural diversity in the curriculum, research and engagement with local communities, as well as supporting events that promote belonging and acceptance.

Yasmina Mallam-Hassam is the Head of Employability Services at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and Co-founder of Own Your Talent Ltd. With seventeen years of experience in the Higher Education Careers field, Yasmina has seen the landscape change countless times. With the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and the much needed focus on diversifying both student and workplace cohorts, she provides context of the changes, and provides tips on how to attract new talent.

Lessons learned from the COVID pandemic; how to utilise them to diversify your talent base.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some stark realities for graduate talent entering the labour market today. As with the financial crisis in 2008, graduate opportunities are facing a reduction of 12% fewer graduate jobs than in 2019 according to research in May 2020 by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE).

For graduates from underrepresented groups the situation is far worse. The gap between Black and White graduates in terms of attaining a graduate level job six months after graduation is 4.7 percentage points. According to the “Race Inequality in the Workforce” report by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, The Carnegie Trust and Operation Black Vote, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) young adults continue to be at a greater risk of being unemployed than White young adults. BAME groups are also more likely to be in some form of precarious work, which are highly affected by the health risks from the pandemic, as well as job losses from the economic fallout. These inequalities also exist for graduates with disabilities and low-socio economic backgrounds.

If we take a step back from the pandemic, however, we will see that this is at odds with the drivers for talent demand in the labour market.

The changing drivers of talent demand

With various incarnations of legislation culminating in the Equality Act 2010, companies have been running initiatives to increase their diversity. The legislative driver has been an important one, but now there are three additional factors at play: talent shortages, client/supplier drivers, and the impact of diversity on the bottom line.

In many industries there is simply a shortage of talent in the market e.g. Engineering, IT, life sciences. Brexit will only serve to exacerbate such shortages. The Mercer Workforce Monitor report Diversification: Is there a NEET solution to the workforce crisis?” looks at the impact of increasing the workforce by attracting people from underrepresented groups, particularly women, older workers, and people with disabilities. If we take people with disabilities, increasing participation by 5% (the rate at which participation grew between 2013-2018) would see the disabled workforce grow by 475,000. These are the sectors that will not only come up with solutions to address the societal problems that have been highlighted by the pandemic e.g. health inequalities, lack of a connected social care system, the need to increase access, and use of technology in education, but they will also need talent to be able to pull us out of what is anticipated to be the worst economic environment since the great depression.

Research and market surveys are now showing clear links between diversity and innovation, productivity, and profitability. For example, the McKinsey report Diversity Matters 2015 showed a statistically significant correlation between diversity of the leadership team and financial performance. Gender diverse leadership teams were 15% more likely to have better financial performance than those in the bottom quartile – this rose to 35% for ethnic diversity.


Other reports show the benefits of diversity in innovation and decision making in organisations.

Furthermore, the client base and supplier network are now looking for diversity both in terms of the representation of products being offered, for example, diversity of characters in the creative arts and gaming industries, and also in terms of the quality of output e.g. legal and consulting firms being granted work based on the diversity of their teams.

We also need to remember that the unprecedented levels of change and uncertainty that millennials have experienced, particularly those from underrepresented groups, have enabled them to have increased levels of resilience, adaptability, and ability to learn; capabilities that any organisation should value.

So how do we attract and retain diverse talent?

To do this effectively, we need to understand their lived experience, and also how they view and engage with organisations through the lens of their career. For example, the perception of an organisation and its attitude to attracting and developing diverse talent will play a role.

Students will start to think about their career before they go to university. They will consider professions and potential employers and will often ask people in their personal network for advice. This presents the first issue. If companies do not reach out to this talent, either through diversity-based initiatives, social mobility initiatives, CSR or business development, then the students will not have awareness of them.

Organisations also need to consider how they engage with prospective talent. Schools and universities are key conduits to talent from underrepresented groups, but organisations need to be clear on where they need to improve. Without data this is virtually impossible. The Social Mobility Commission has created an employer toolkit which gives advice on what data to collect e.g. free school meals, parental occupation, and type of school attended. Organisations can also do this for ethnicity, gender, and disability demographics. Once this data has been gathered, gaps and intersectionalities can be seen; e.g. proportions of students who have more than one characteristic.

Questions can also be asked e.g. which schools and universities are we targeting to attract talent? What are their demographics? Which of the CSR initiatives support diversification of talent? What are our retention rates for diverse talent across different seniority levels?

For example, the COVID19 pandemic has driven organisations to create virtual internship experiences or training, such as HSBC’s Digital Employability Series, or the organisations that took part in Bright Network’s internship experience UK. These enable students from non-traditional backgrounds to gain experiences in organisations that don’t typically visit their campuses. The data from these can be also very informative in terms of potential untapped talent sources.

This can then lead to a re-focusing of talent attraction and talent development initiatives to broaden the talent base and develop them through to senior levels in the organisation. It can also help to start the conversation to really understand the barriers that diverse talent faces in developing their employability and accessing graduate opportunities, ultimately creating more effective engagement initiatives. To keep this talent; attention needs to be paid to their professional development, making the norms for gaining promotion transparent and accessible, as well as providing the coaching and training for talent to rise up the ranks.

A cause for hope?

Running our own diversity initiative Be Smart at St Mary’s University, Twickenham involving mentoring, micro placements and leadership training, also yielded some interesting findings. We noticed some critical success factors that enabled the programme, namely:

  • Promoting the scheme for appealing to the aspirations of ethnic minority students to become leaders, not a “deficit model”

  • Student chose to participate if the criteria for application to the programme reflected them; not a BAME initiative

  • BAME (allies) and senior leadership advocacy helped remove company barriers to engagement

  • BAME community invested in its success; mentors and managers driving the agenda

  • University removes payment barrier via funding for the scheme and payroll

  • Flexi internship meant that students did not face a trade off with part-time job

Some companies working with us such as Gartner, have understood that our students need those flexible learning experiences and have made the business case to create these short internships outside of their regular programme. These also provide access to a network that was beyond their reach, and a brand name on their CV that will open doors.

It must be said that technology also played a role here. Those companies that were willing to flex internships to online formats enabled students to sharpen their digital capabilities and still get the experience they needed. Online training also enabled us to maintain engagement and, in some ways, enable access for commuter students.

Santander too has been a champion of diversity; providing universities with funding for internships and enterprise programmes where 75% of participants need to be from underrepresented groups.

Furthermore, St Mary’s has made the commitment, through its employability strategy, to embed employability in the whole student experience including engagement of employers in curriculum and to increase the inclusivity of work experience opportunities for all students.

The ideas are there; and to make it work we need the engagement of companies to work with universities, thinking beyond the traditional networks to those that have that pool of raw talent that, with the right support and flexible opportunities will shine. We need to think differently about the types of opportunities offered, meeting students where they are with all the financial and time pressures that they face so they don’t have to make the choice between survival today and a professional future tomorrow.

This piece is part of our Perspectives series. Higher Education is changing fast, moving beyond emergency online teaching to provide a robust and satisfying student experience. As your institution plans to manage the challenges of this uncertain environment, stay aware of how others are responding. Each week we’ll share insights and discussion including student views, research, and interviews with academic leaders. Sign up for the series using the form to the right.


About Yasmina:

Yasmina is an Employability Services Leader and the co-founder of the career management consultancy Own Your Talent Ltd. She has seventeen years experience in the Higher Education Careers field, and a further seven years in commercial business development and consultancy. She is currently studying a CMI level 6 certificate in diversity and inclusion.



Topics: widening participation, digital transformation, student experience, higher education, edtech, digital campus, perspectives, BAME, diversity, inclusion, St Mary’s University, Twickenham, santander, hsbc, yasmina mallam-hassam

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