Letter to Universities UK

The text below is of a letter sent to Universities UK on March 19th 2018, withdrawing from our current working relationship with them due to their role in the USS pensions dispute.


For the attention of: Alistair Jarvis and Professor Janet Beer

We write as the Changing University Cultures collective – we have been working closely with Universities UK over the past couple of years on promoting equality and diversity in higher education, and tackling sexual harassment and violence, through cultural change. We were recently commissioned to produce a set of sector-wide guidelines on creating cultural change in universities, to be launched at a national conference this November. Unfortunately, in light of the ongoing USS pensions dispute, we are writing to withdraw from this commission and our current association with Universities UK.

Pensions are a key equalities issue. A recent paper by experts at Sheffield highlighted that while women have a smaller pension than men in any system (and BAME women are even more adversely affected), this is is exacerbated in defined contribution schemes due to differences in how men and women engage with financial information and risk. DC schemes also fail to offer the maternity coverage that DB schemes do. Universities UK cannot claim to be working towards equality and diversity in the sector while pursuing pension reforms which are antithetical to that agenda, and we cannot in good faith work with Universities UK on equality and diversity issues under these conditions.

On the bigger issue of institutional culture, it is clear that the sector is in disarray and that this has happened under the influence of Universities UK. The proposed reforms to the USS pension scheme could not be a clearer statement of current sectoral values, based on an imaginary deficit and designed to facilitate capital investment projects at the expense of staff security and working conditions (defined as ‘inessential costs’). The complete disregard for staff and students’ welfare has become painfully clear during the course of this dispute. While some Vice-Chancellors have come through for their staff and students in important ways, others have either remained silent or taken punitive actions against strikers and student occupations.

This is a crisis of culture and relationship which has been building for years, and which we do not intend to turn our backs on. However, while we are happy to work with individual Vice-Chancellors, either to continue building bridges or to assess and begin to repair the damage, we cannot do this under the auspices of Universities UK until it is willing to address its own culture and complicity. Institutional culture work cannot be window dressing for the systematic devaluation and precaritisation of staff and students. It must be grounded in a critique of the marketisation of universities and what that does to the values that staff and students hold dear. It is with regret, therefore, that we withdraw from our current association with Universities UK.

Yours sincerely,

The Changing University Cultures Collective

Statement from USV React and CHUCL on Universities UK Task Force Report

We welcome the release of the Universities UK report today on violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. It is crucial that leading bodies in the sector put pressure on universities to take action on these issues, so the report performs an important intervention. We are glad to see the update to the Zellick guidelines on dealing with incidents which may constitute a criminal offence: particularly the focus on the university’s duty of care to all students, and protective measures which can be put in place while an investigation takes place. We also appreciate the hard work and expertise contributed to the process by all members of the task force.

Amongst its key recommendations, the report advises that all universities take up a form of bystander intervention. While we agree that bystander approaches are valuable, we are concerned about the lack of intersectionality in the bystander model. Bystander intervention is not sensitive to diverse student demographics: are all students equally positioned to act as (and be seen as) helpful bystanders? When we consider the ways in which class and race figure in definitions of potential perpetrators and ‘ideal victims’, we think probably not. We also have concerns about the dominant focus on not breaking the law and what constitutes criminal acts. There is an implicit assumption here that the law is equivalent to justice. This is despite a body of feminist work that illustrates the ways in which criminal justice systems re-victimise survivors and perpetuate forms of state violence through punishment which again, are structured by class and race.

Our projects aim to influence institutional cultures through education and skills development. We do not subscribe to the disciplinary/punitive approach. We are concerned with changing perceptions of sexual violence and fostering empathy to create safe and supportive communities. We work with whole-institution frameworks for creating cultural change: these are recommended in the UUK report, but there needs to be a more practical focus on how to develop and implement them.

USVReact (Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence) advocates disclosure training for staff vertically (top to bottom of the institutions) as well as horizontally in order to achieve broad influence. In educating staff about the reasons why survivors might not come forward, we are aiming to influence institutional cultures to be more supportive of survivors of violence. We approach this work recognising that inappropriate responses to disclosure can be re-traumatising/victimising for survivors and that this requires staff to have sufficient knowledge about violence as a gendered and intersectional phenomenon. We are also concerned to prioritise the autonomy and choice of the survivor in relation to whether they decide to escalate a complaint.

CHUCL (Changing University Cultures) uses a capacity-building framework (SHAPE) as an antidote to neoliberal values, fostering self-awareness, honesty, altruism, political consciousness and empathy. We use techniques of Grounded Action Inquiry to generate cultural change initiatives from the whole university community, via an inclusive and dialogic progress. In our work with universities, we hope to create a cohort of ‘change agents’ across the HE sector who are working towards cultural change in meaningful and sustainable ways. This is not a goal which can be achieved through setting targets, measuring indicators, creating policies and implementing top-down training programmes. It is certainly not a goal which can be achieved through discipline and punishment.

University actions to address sexual harassment and violence should build on the existing body of feminist research and good practice. Studies have shown the inextricable links between gender and violence and have highlighted the cultural, social, and structural factors which enable harassment and violence to thrive. If we do not employ these analyses, we are left with reactive models that emphasise punishment for individuals who commit offences. Using a gendered and intersectional lens would facilitate the development of preventative models for whole-institution action. We realise it is easy to critique policy and initiatives from the sidelines: with this in mind, we would be delighted to work collaboratively and constructively with institutions and individuals who are interested in our research and/or our perspectives.

For more information about USVReact visit http://usvreact.eu/

For more information about CHUCL visit https://chucl.com/

What is SHAPE?

SHAPE is our capacity-building framework, developed at Imperial College, which aims to provide an antidote to the dominant values of higher education (for instance individualism and competition). This blends the skills of emotional intelligence (for instance, empathy and communication) with social and political consciousness.

SHAPE can be nurtured at departmental, school/faculty or whole institution levels, and the qualities it denotes should be seen in all aspects of a unit’s work, from top-level policies to interpersonal interactions. This process can be seen as cyclical and holistic: individuals with these qualities SHAPE institutions, and vice versa. The capacities developed by SHAPE can be further broken down as follows:

The capacity to recognise how emotions impact on opinions, attitudes and judgments
The capacity to accept oneself and maintain motivation and connection with oneself and others

The capacity to communicate feelings and perspectives in an upfront and respectful way
The capacity to engage in self-reflection for personal growth

A commitment to evolving the culture of an institution in positive ways
The capacity to turn ideas into meaningful practices

Political Consciousness
The capacity to recognise, and work to mitigate, disparities of power
A strong commitment to equality & diversity as a political principle

The capacity to be present to and understand other people’s thoughts and feelings
The capacity to listen actively and authentically

It will take time, and may require expert help, for institutions to develop the capacities outlined here. It is also not a goal which can be achieved through setting targets, measuring indicators, creating policies and implementing training programmes. However, there are some tools which can help, including the Grounded Action Inquiry methodology developed by our project which embeds many of the capacities within SHAPE and can be consciously deployed to nurture others.

What is Grounded Action Inquiry?

In the current political and economic landscape, organisations are often confronted with volatile and changing environments where more is expected, more quickly, with fewer resources available. In this context it can be tempting to seek instant answers: however, these often provide transient solutions at best. The use of Action Inquiry (AI) as an organisational change tool is about identifying ways for organisations to name and tackle problems for themselves, in a way that is both transformative and sustainable (Ellis and Kiely, 2000).

AI is an iterative, cyclical process of improved knowledge through action, and new/improved action through reflection. It can be undertaken at three levels, which also inter-relate with each other. First-person AI is self-inquiry, a process of bringing awareness to our thoughts, feelings and actions in an organisational context. Second-person AI involves joint inquiry with others into issues of mutual concern. Third-person AI seeks to bring a wider community, such as an organisation, into these processes. AI initiatives often involve all three levels. For example, second-person AI requires all participants to engage in self-reflection. As their understanding develops, participants may want to influence a wider system, and thus adopt third-person approaches.

Third-person AI is a way of organising people, knowledge and resources to achieve reflection, increased clarity and new/improved actions across the domains of organisational mission, strategy, performance and outcomes. It supports the development of shared visions and strategies, embeds collaborative ways of communicating, and involves shared learning and decision-making about how to apply this learning to create the potential for organisational change. It also explicitly aims to create sustainability, and focuses on the effectiveness, integrity, identity, and adaptability of organisations as part of wider socio-political and economic environments (Torbert, 2004).

Third-person AI operates as a process of joint inquiry via groups or ‘sets’. These can be designed in many ways: for instance, through existing organisational communication structures such as team/management meetings, or through the formation of new groups. It creates opportunities for employees at all levels to take part and create their own knowledge and actions relevant to their own specific situation.  Employees shape the starting point(s) for inquiry and, through a process of reflective discussion, agree and take actions to enable change, and reflect on its impact. Fresh insights and understandings are developed through continuing spirals of action, and reflection on/evaluation of action (Carr, 1986). This cyclical process increases the capacity to support individual personal development, improved managerial practice, and creates possibilities for organisational change (Ellis and Kiely, 2000).

Our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology involves ‘grounding’ this Action Inquiry process in research data on institutional culture. Through this approach, Action Inquiry can be used in a targeted way to begin the process of cultural change. Grounded Action Inquiry involves a number of steps:

(1) Data collection on institutional culture using a simple survey and focus groups;

(2) Analysis of this data to come up with a description of the institution’s culture and themes for further discussion;

(3) An Action Inquiry process through which staff and students at all levels of the institution come together to discuss the themes and think about/try possible actions.

We piloted our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology, with much success, at Imperial College London. We are now developing resources to make this widely available throughout the higher education sector.


Ellis, J.H.M & Kiely, J.A (2000) The promise of action inquiry in tackling organisational problems in real time. Action research international
Torbert, B (2004) Action Inquiry: The Secret of Timely and Transforming Leadership. San Francisco: BK
Carr, W. & Kemmis, S (1986) Becoming critical: education, knowledge and action research. London: Falmer Press

What is Institutional Culture?

Our definition of institutional culture blends ideas of organisational culture and the disciplinary institution. The organisation is a meso level structure, between macro (society) and micro (individual) levels.

For Swidler (1986), culture is the tool kit of habits, skills and styles with which individuals construct strategies of action. In a university context, this means people’s work/teaching/study practices, how they negotiate challenges, and how they interact and behave. Swidler also discusses beliefs: in relation to the institution, these would be about its nature and what it means to exist within it. We link these to values – for example, excellence or equality – which can be top-down or bottom-up, internal- or external-facing, and stated and/or experienced (an institution’s stated values may not be what its staff and/or students experience in practice).

Cultural values, beliefs and practices interact with social categories such as gender, race and class. This refers to both the types of bodies dominant and marginalised within an institution, and particular ideas or ways of being. Some people, usually from more privileged social groups, are better able to survive institutional cultures than others. As well as being shaped by bodies, institutional cultures shape bodies: for Foucault (1975), education is one of several disciplinary institutions. Institutional norms produce and embed ways of thinking and being. Institutional culture, then, can be deeply experienced and enacted. There may also be subcultures and issues of conflict however (Silver 2003), so it is important not to see institutional culture as static or monolithic.

Institutional cultures also exist in a social context. Some theorists have identified ‘institutional logics’ (Thornton and Ocasio 2008) such as democracy, the capitalist market, the bureaucratic state, and religion (Friedland & Alford, 1991), which have a shaping function. A key example here for universities would be the neoliberal logics which structure the higher education sector and our economy and society more broadly. Universities and other institutions are also shaped by, and shape, other social discourses such as gender, race and class (Martin, 2004). We use the term societal logics to encompass all these meanings.

We must ask a number of questions to begin understand the culture of an institution. We must also recognise that this culture will look different depending on one’s social and institutional location. Drawing from feminist standpoint theory (Hill Collins 1990), we argue that those who are marginalised in/by particular cultures can often achieve a better understanding of them, particularly of problematic aspects. Some initial questions for reflection might be:

  1. What are the stated values of the institution, both outward- and inward-facing?
  2. What are its experienced values, and do these differ?
  3. Are there any commonly held beliefs about the institution?
  4. How do people experience and feel about working/studying there?
  5. What are the characteristics of the work/study environment(s)?
  6. What challenges do people identify, and how do they deal with them?
  7. Where are the areas of conflict?

Our Grounded Action Inquiry methodology involves a simple survey instrument and focus group guide to collect data on these questions, which can then be analysed to develop themes for a cyclical Action Inquiry process which involves discussion, reflection and action. For more information on Grounded Action Inquiry, look at our next post.


Ahmed, S (2012) On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Durham: Duke University Press
Foucault, M (1975) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. London: Penguin (1991 edition)
Friedland, R and Alford, R (1991) ‘Bringing society back in: Symbols, practices, and institutional contradictions,’ in The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, ed. Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, pp. 232–263. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Hill Collins, P (1990) Black Feminist Thought. London: Routledge (2000 edition)
Martin, PY (2004) ‘Gender as social institution.’ Social Forces 82(4), 1249-1273
Silver, H (2003) ‘Does a university have a culture?’ Studies in Higher Education 28(2), 157-169
Swidler, A (1986) ‘Culture in action: Symbols and strategies.’ American Sociological Review, 273-286
Thornton, PH and Ocasio, W (2008) ‘Institutional Logics.’ Sage Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism 840, 99-128