In May 2018 Professor Janice Kay CBE, University of Exeter Provost, set up a new Commission designed to ensure Exeter is an open, diverse and safe university community for all.


In May 2018 Professor Janice Kay CBE, University of Exeter Provost, set up a new Commission designed to ensure Exeter is an open, diverse and safe university community for all.

The aim of the Provost Commission is to extend and work alongside the work of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) team and others working in this area. It is made up of students, members of the Students' Guild and The Student Union in Cornwall, academic and professional colleagues from across the institution.

Janice says: “That year we had this episode with the Bracton Law Society, where a number of students were excluded after we found they had been sending some incredibly offensive and racist messages across WhatsApp. While the details of this incident were unique, there had been similar events before and I was really upset about it. Upset by the extreme language itself, upset by what had happened, and also upset that it was ‘again’; that we hadn’t been successful in preventing these incidents.

“This was not the kind of institution I thought we were, nor the kind I wanted to be working in. I knew we had to do something different and that it would need to be central to the University with involvement from all quarters. So I sat down and basically wrote out a manifesto for what became the Provost Commission. The role of Linda Peka, VCEG lead for EDI was absolutely pivotal in helping bring this together. Without her tireless work on EDI, launching the Commission would have been much more difficult.

“There was definitely some scepticism at the start, and I’d say a little suspicion about the motives for setting it up, but over time we have started to make real progress and more people have got involved.”

Some of the very first initiatives that were implemented were designed to make it easier to report any form of harassment or discrimination.

There are now webpages providing staff and students with a more visible hub of information and support services, as well an online tool to report issues confidentially. Speak Out Guardians were also introduced, promoting a different avenue to raise concerns. One year after their introduction an independent review highlighted that this role has been positively received.

Since then developments have included the launch of an EDI training e-module for all students, in addition to the pre-existing one for staff; the launch of the Cultural Competency community of practice with Georgetown University, and a Let’s Talk series in partnership with the BME Staff, Student and Allies Network.

Given the low number of diverse role models at the University a new Individuality Speaker Series was launched to bring speakers to the campuses who are champions of equality and are able to bring different perspectives.

Janice Kay CBE, Provost and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Exeter

Janice says: “Although we set up the Commission in 2018 it really took off in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent anti-racism protests. We saw that more people, who hadn’t previously been impacted by our activity, wanted to get involved and help us make a difference.

“It is a collective effort and I’m privileged to work with some incredibly talented and inspiring people. The Commission works closely with staff networks as well as student groups to ensure the discussions we have, and the solutions proposed, are grounded in reality and can lead to real progress.

“Two recent developments have been the appointment of Dr Vrinda Nayak of the Medical School as Associate Academic Dean for Racial Equality and Inclusion, and the launch of a £25k student led fund to be focussed on anti-racist initiatives.

"This fund was set-up following extensive discussions with The UnLearn Collective, a student led anti-racism group, and we had some really great student projects apply. Some of those being supporting include looking at decolonising the curriculum, exploring racial diversity within sports societies, and establishing a Policy Clinic to help students get involved in reforms.

“Vrinda’s appointment is a real high point for me. The role was created in response to engagement with staff and students, and will be instrumental in achieving race equality and ensuring an inclusive curriculum.”

While the original face-to-face meetings are not currently possible, discussions have continued remotely throughout the pandemic.

Some of the key areas of focus at the moment include: working to actively develop BAME leadership and ensure inclusive representation within recruitment processes; seeking to gain the Race Equality Charter - a framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of minority ethnic staff and students; developing actions to help close the BAME awarding gap; and investigating how Global Research partnerships could enable more diverse linkages across the world and drive more inclusive co-working and research exchange.

Shades Chaudhary is the Communications and Engagement Officer within the EDI Team. She says: “The Commission was co-created from the very beginning with no fixed hierarchy. I guess I have quite a unique experience to go from being Guild President and representing the student voice, to being part of University staff but within the group I still speak up and still challenge if needed.

“I think our work has created a sense of commitment to change. We have moved away from labelling things isolated incidents and also become more transparent. We’re creating a space, and environment, where students and staff are comfortable to talk about race. We cannot eradicate racism because it is far bigger than Exeter, but we can get the conversation started and make sure that the University is not a place where racism is tolerated.”

Exeter’s national outreach activity has a specific focus on supporting BAME pupils who also meet specific widening participation criteria and this work has continued despite the pandemic.

Around 80% of the students on the national Exeter Scholars programme are pupils of colour, and outreach activity takes on board good practice in relation to anti-racist pedagogies and inclusive learning.

Nicola Sinclair, Head of Widening Participation at Exeter, is heavily involved with the Provost Commission and other initiatives. She says: “In response to the COVID pandemic we migrated our all school and pupil support online, launching a new Discover University platform and implementing two successful digital programmes for Yr12 pupils from outside the SW, the majority of whom were pupils of colour.

"We also put in place enhanced induction and transition support for those pupils progressing to Exeter from our fair access schemes and also those meeting specific criteria e.g. with disabilities, caring responsibilities or leaving care.

“The University has recently established the Success for All programme, which has received additional support from alumni, to take forward specific work-streams aimed at closing gaps in access, retention, success and progression between different student groups. A key priority is to close gaps in degree outcomes for Black students in comparison with their white peers.

“In my role as Director (Practice) for the Centre for Social Mobility, it's been rewarding to launch a number of projects, three of which relate to inclusive education. We’re testing a variety of approaches to student and academic staff development, including the development of a Decolonising the Curriculum toolkit for academic colleagues working in social sciences.”

Staff networks have been integral to the work taking place at Exeter. Project Co-ordinator (Inclusive Education) Tina Verhaeghe co-founded the BME Staff, Students and Allies Network in 2019 after some painful personal and professional experiences. The Network has provided a community for many who previously felt isolated and alone in their experiences.

“I do feel as though progress is being made.” Tina says. “I feel so lucky to be a part of the activity and see how the conversation and activity is changing. I also see the time and dedication towards making this happen and know that should this momentum continue, the University will continue to make great strides in the right direction. I was a student here (2008-2011) and don't recall ever discussing race and racism. It is heartening to see how much this has changed and that there are spaces where this topic is tackled head on. There is still a lot to be done to make this a culturally adept and competent space in which anyone can come and thrive and I hope to continue to see more people commit to addressing inequality in all aspects of life."

“I always said I wanted the Network’s presence to result in a tangible change in the University and I am proud that this is the case. I love seeing the signature of the Network in University policy and initiatives - we have made impact that will be felt for generations and built on work done by those before us. I also feel extreme pride when I hear from staff and students about the difference having a community of likeminded people has made to their lives or when someone says our support in dealing with racism was felt and appreciated. This is what all the hard work was for.”

Students’ Guild President Sunday Blake has played a key role in the Commission. She says it is a definite step in the right direction for students: “For me there has been a real change in tone, from sometimes appearing quite defensive to being much more collaborative. I feel like students are having their concerns listened to, in fact the listening has been one of the most important developments. Janice and Linda (Peka, Deputy Registrar and Chief College Operations Officer) have been really strong at this, learning from students (and staff) who have experienced these issues, rather than assuming they know what’s best.

“Students are more comfortable to speak about racism now. There are still some issues when it comes to official reporting and fear of repercussions but these are getting better, there has definitely been progress.

"Plus the £25,000 fund has been huge for giving students a voice and ensuring they are leading on solutions. It’s important we keep the conversation going, to keep listening to people and taking actions to support them.

“In the longer term I would like to focus on what happens to students after they graduate. We can make Exeter an anti-racist university, it will take time but I truly believe that, however we can’t control what happens to people once they leave. I hope we can help graduates to handle discrimination and racism in the workplace and wider society, equip them with knowledge of their rights. This support is not just for BAME students either, it is important that the rest of us know how to be allies and to call out racism where we see it.”

Donations to the Alumni Annual Fund have also helped support activity. Voices is a Student Union project on the Penryn Campus, providing a platform for people whose voices might previously have been hidden.

While The Rest of Us, is a magazine developed by Drama Professor Jerry Daboo that shares student stories and experiences often not represented. Both these projects have received Alumni Annual Fund support.

While we have focused on the anti-racism activity of the Provost Commission in this update, the group works across all diversity issues. You can read the University’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Strategy online as well as learning about other support networks for staff and students.