An Arc Forged from Our Diversity of Thought
I have spent my whole career pushing for greater diversity, first in industry and later in academia.
There have been great strides in growing the participation of previously underrepresented groups in higher education. This has opened places of learning to a vibrancy of thought and access to a wider pool of people that has tangibly improved in academia, education and training in the UK. Furthermore, as a BCG study of a few years ago has shown, increasing the diversity of organisations leads to more and better innovation and improved financial performance – producing up to 19% higher revenue. We can continue to make great headway by improving diversity, including the diversity of thought, of culture, and experience in the region.
The Oxford-Cambridge Arc, as a region of exceptional potential, is home to a range of progressive educational institutions. Oxford and Cambridge are the best known. Alongside them, Anglia Ruskin, Oxford Brookes, Cranfield and MK:U, the Open University, the University of Northampton, Buckinghamshire New University, and the University of Bedfordshire, have all carved out superb legacies in STEM fields among others. Just as recognising the importance of diversity of background can help organisations to grow and to succeed, recognising the many providers of pioneering education in the Arc underlines the depth of this unique knowledge ecosystem.
Isaac Newton, who made profound contributions to the stock of human knowledge, supported himself through Cambridge by looking after other students. He was allowed to take his degree at the same time, later providing the field of physics with his own unique perspectives and intellect. This may seem like an archaic scheme to modern eyes, but it was initiatives like this that allowed people from non-traditional backgrounds to contribute to scientific progress. Now we have more egalitarian approaches to attracting and empowering candidates with a diversity of background and thought, such as bursaries, mentorship and apprenticeship schemes, but the principles are the same. When universities like Cranfield attract from the incredibly diverse human capital available across the region, and beyond they ensure they can continue to be at the forefront of producing world-leading innovation, attract home-grown and international talent, and continue to build those vital skills for research and development that is the unique benefit and gift of the Arc.
It is in light of the Arc’s special history, and its relevance today, that we should strive to champion diversity of thought, culture, and experience. Without a sufficient diversity of opinion, and the ability to challenge and scrutinise original thinking, we risk closing ourselves to the skills and knowledge accumulated by those who come from all walks of life. Awareness and development of the Arc is a golden opportunity to ensure that efforts to improve the diversity of the institutions of higher education in the region and across UK can translate into the creation of an atmosphere where diversity of thought is given the value it deserves. Just as most initiatives in the Arc, be they in academia, research start-ups or infrastructure projects, are at their most successful when assisted mutually by the public and private sectors, underlining our need to recognise that diversity itself comes in many forms.
A real commitment has to be made to make the Arc a nurturing environment for a diverse range of thought, opinion and background; from the two ancient and world leading universities that bookend the region to the transformative research done at Cranfield, and to the valuable of training institutions in the Arc like the Bedford College Group or the Buckinghamshire College Group in mentoring and producing apprentices from a diverse range of backgrounds and in the vital technical skills that will allow us to prevent skill gaps in the future. Equally impressive and valuable is when traditional universities can commit to schemes to empower those who, for a variety of socioeconomic reasons, would struggle to attend by their own efforts alone: Cambridge’s STEM SMART programme provides the world-class teaching of the university to those who want to go on to study science and engineering but have experienced educational disadvantages, or belong to a range of demographics that statistically struggle to reach higher education.
In June 2021, Cranfield was proud to extend its mentorship programme to all students at the university, ensuring they have a link with alumni who work in industry. By linking current students to those with professional experience, and fostering an atmosphere of mutual learning and support, both mentee and mentor can benefit from the diversity of thought that passes through our doors. We can take this further, by making our commitment to diversity clear in the student and academic body, and representation across learning environments not least within STEM studies.
Through MK:U, the new technology institution in Milton Keynes, we are supporting the development of a suite of Level 6 degree apprenticeships in management and in digital and data subjects that are delivering new opportunities for school leavers and employees in the region.