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Advance HE announces next steps in supporting UK HE to develop more holistic and strategically aligned approaches to equality, diversity and inclusion.

27 Sep 2023 | Dr Ruth Gilligan Advance HE is committed to ensuring that our support for equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in higher education remains innovative and responsive to sector challenges.

Advance HE is committed to ensuring that our support for equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in higher education remains innovative and responsive to sector challenges. As part of our 2021-2024 strategy, we promised to explore a holistic approach to EDI, responding to our members' desire to work in a more strategic and joined-up way, and support activity beyond the protected characteristics of UK equality legislation.

Previous independent reviews of both Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter have demonstrated that they are catalysts for change in relation to gender and race equality. The sector is seeing e.g. consistent progress in gender progression and representation, and there are early positive indications in the awarding gap between White and Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. Given that these sector challenges remain a priority, and to harness any opportunities for greater impact and improved efficiency from more holistic approaches, it is important that Advance HE works with members in exploring and developing new ways of working.

In the spring and summer of 2022, Newcastle University led a consultation project commissioned by Advance HE. A sector Advisory Group, chaired by Professor Quintin McKellar (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and an Advance HE Board member), guided the project. The consultation involved 279 stakeholders, including a survey, interviews, submissions, and consultation events. The majority of stakeholders expressed support for Advance HE to progress on the development of a holistic approach to EDI.

Sector consultation led by Newcastle University

The research findings showed a lack of alignment in the current system of EDI activity and accreditation, with little support for organisation-wide consideration of strategic alignment, synergy across work strands, or intersectionality. Current approaches have also been criticised in some contexts as risking being viewed as performative and can require significant financial and staff resource. Moving beyond protected characteristics, including a focus on socioeconomic status and well-being, is important to stakeholders, but there is no shared understanding of what a ‘holistic approach’ would mean in practice. Stakeholders expressed concerns about developing a holistic approach relating to limited resources, the possible duplication and dilution of EDI work – particularly work on race equality – and the applicability of any holistic approach to EDI in different institutional contexts.

The full research report from Newcastle University has now been published and we’d encourage stakeholders to review the data and findings: Exploring a holistic approach to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: Evidence report

Sector Advisory Group recommendations

The Advisory Group, which brought together sector agencies, leaders and thematic experts, made several recommendations in relation to next steps. They recommended that Advance HE take forward discovery and design work and then potentially pilot a new service or services supporting members to put a holistic approach into practice. However, the group also advised that Advance HE bear in mind concerns, risks, and a clear set of principles:

  • Be outcomes and impact focused
  • Provide a definition of a holistic approach, including intersectionality and a wider range of factors than protected characteristics (including socioeconomic status)
  • Following a university-wide model, be non-prescriptive and embed institutional choice, led by local evidence and context
  • Be very aware of resources, accounting for staff as well as financial resource
  • Support institutions to make proportionate choices in prioritisation of focus, activity and interventions
  • Don’t require institutions to move away from Athena Swan or Race Equality Charter (REC) commitments
  • Emphasise transparency in analysis, evidence and decision making
  • Don’t compromise funder or regulatory requirements

Next steps: discovery phase

During the 2023-24 academic year, Advance HE will be conducting a discovery project to explore in more detail how members currently work and how they can be supported in taking a more holistic approach to EDI. The project aims to understand existing EDI structures and related practice, identify potential mitigations against current challenges and concerns, and develop a proposal of next steps to pilot with the sector.

The Newcastle University consultation report provided a rich data set and with the Advisory Group’s input, a clear direction of travel for Advance HE’s work. It also indicated that most institutions are starting to work in holistic or joined up ways already, at least in some respects. However, it didn’t receive many submissions or examples of holistic approaches. In order to develop proposals and pilot new activity, we need to understand current effective practice, recent innovation and different ways of working strategically and holistically across the sector, in different contexts and at different institutions.

For instance, a key area of feedback from members has been alignment between socioeconomic status and EDI, particularly in relation to Access and Participation Plans (APPs), in England, and the opportunities for maximising impact from more joined up approaches across APPs and e.g. Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter. This could develop not just a more efficient and strategically aligned organisational approach, but also support strands of work within thematic areas, such the application of data and more effective interventions in APPs or equality charters.     

The discovery phase therefore helps us fill that key gap in evidence and understanding in order to support more effective practice. We will use the engagement with members to more clearly define a holistic approach to EDI and to ensure we’re developing proposals that are likely to be fit for purpose. We’ll then test these proposals with the sector, bringing together a range of different stakeholder perspectives in roundtables to help shape and finalise actions. 

What happens now?

In Autumn 2023, Advance HE will be reaching out to a representative group of UK members to participate in the discovery phase. The discovery phase will include gathering in-depth case studies on EDI practice across institutions, targeted interviews, a data-focused collaborative workshop, and roundtables exploring emerging themes.

In addition to supporting the development of innovative new services to aid the sector, members taking part in the discovery phase will have the opportunity to better understand the enablers and barriers in their own contexts and will be guaranteed a place at the planned roundtable events to discuss emerging themes across the project.

In addition, all members will be kept informed of progress and emerging themes, and will be offered opportunities to engage through a series of blogs and roundtable events.


The consultation findings and Advisory Group recommendations have led Advance HE to focus on supporting the sector to align and streamline EDI activity, with a potential for easing resource demands. Bringing together systems, approaches, learning and effective practice across EDI strands can have a greater impact, more creativity, and focus on accelerating the pace of change.

If you are interested in the project and discovery phase, please get in touch with or register your interest here.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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