Why university diversity programmes should be about suppliers too

SOURCE: Shutterstock
Universities stand to benefit from implementing supplier diversity programmes.

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

Universities transform lives. But whose lives?

Student, staff or worker, is everyone equally privy to the same raft of benefits universities offer the communities they serve?

Not quite.

What the numbers say

According to Advance HE, in the 2016-17 academic year, of the UK’s 19,000 professors, there were just 25 black women and 90 black men. Some 14,000 were white men.

This means that across the British university system, at least seven out of every 10 professors were white. In terms of student diversity, just 8 percent of first-year undergraduates across the UK were black.

In the US, a faculty-wide study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that as of fall 2016, 76 percent or more than three-quarters of university faculty were white. Just 6 percent were black and 5 percent Hispanic, despite an increase in student enrolments from those in the two minority groups.

Academia often tout the importance of diversity and inclusion at their institutions. Many even lead the conversation with loud campaigns replete with catchy hashtags intended to go viral on social media.

The official line is that these ideals are woven into the very fabric of today’s higher learning institutions, manifest in recruitment policies, internationalisation agendas and guidelines governing anything and everything to do with university administration.

But as the statistics suggest, this isn’t always true. Student or teacher, not everyone benefits the same way in the higher education sphere. 

Of course, efforts are underway to change this. 

The changing narrative on diversity

In the UK, universities are being held to account on how they tackle ethnic disparities among students and staff.

A cross-government effort to remove these disparities now requires institutions to publish data on admissions and attainment, broken down by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background. 

Despite an increase in enrolments of black and Hispanic students, the communities remain underrepresented in university faculty. Source: Shutterstock

Compilers of league tables have been encouraged to include data on institutional efforts to improve outcomes for underrepresented groups, giving universities added impetus to expand their diversity agenda. Details on the mechanics of this remain scant, however, although somewhat unsurprising given the fact that university league tables are independent endeavours.

American universities, meanwhile, are addressing their diversity needs by boosting spending on “diversity officers”. Diversity officers are typically charged with administering programmes that promote the hiring of ethnic minorities and women, support student success and enhance diversity-focused teaching and learning across campus. 

Explaining the sudden popularity of the role last year, The Economist noted that the University of California, Berkeley, had something like 175 or so “diversity bureaucrats”, despite cuts to state funding for the university. 

Some schools are tackling the issue by making diversity training mandatory for faculty; the publication noted that a study of 669 American institutions had found that nearly a third have made it so. 

But what about supplier diversity?

While there appears to be no shortage of measures, not to mention funding schemes, addressing diversity among student and faculty, the same cannot be said of that governing university procurement.

“Historically, corporate America has made supplier diversity a high priority, heavily investing in efforts to increase opportunities for diverse businesses. But what about higher education — specifically public institutions?” a 2017 article in US-based magazine INSIGHT Into Diversity asked.

“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, colleges and universities have largely focused on the diversification of students and faculty, but how much of an emphasis do they place on the inclusion of minority-, women-, veteran-, LGBTQ-, and disability-owned businesses?”

Lest we forget, the higher education business is big business, requiring and generating billions of dollars in funding and revenue every year. Apart from centers of teaching and learning, universities are also large-scale real estate owners, people managers and facilities operators, contributing to the growth of the global economy in more ways than one. 


Students and faculty help these institutions remain academically competitive but their very existence depends on the network of contractors, service providers and vendors that provide the materials, facilities, services and equipment necessary to keep the lights on.

Yet, there’s a dearth of information on the state of supplier diversity across the higher education landscape. Where there’s plenty of research and statistical data on the state and impact of consumer-facing university diversity policies, it appears there’s almost none on university procurement that’s publicly available.

How diversified are the businesses that work with universities around the world? Is there a breakdown? Which universities are the biggest champions of supplier diversity? How have their policies and programmes affected bottom lines? What have university supplier diversity programmes done for local and regional economies?

We don’t know these answers. If you do, we’d love to hear from you.

How diversified are supplier networks? Source: Shutterstock

Not just a matter of compliance

In the US, affirmative action in higher education covers more than admissions policies; Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARS) make it a requirement for organisations that receive federal funding for contracts or subcontracts to establish supplier diversity programmes. 

These programmes guarantee that a percentage of university business will be contracted out to underrepresented small businesses typically owned by ethnic minorities, women and veterans.

Some institutions take the requirements a step further by setting their own targets. The University of California, for example, has a goal to procure 20 percent of purchases from diverse suppliers, regardless of source of funds.


This is a win for minority-owned businesses but as it turns out, many institutions design their programmes around a compliance core to demonstrate they support community service requirements, instead of including it as part of a university-wide social justice agenda. 

“These policies function as innate, self-regulating mechanisms whereby institutions monitor and ensure active compliance through legal channels, ethical standards, and global norms,” explains the Executive Diversity Forum (EDF) in an article for Marquis Miller, Managing Partner for The Business Mosaic. The EDF is an invitation/referral based group for BigCo executives and diversity and inclusion leaders invested in and investing in inclusion.

But inasmuch as these objectives are valid and valued, EDF points out that supplier diversity is about more than compliance and community service.

Diversity matters–and pays

In the corporate setting, racial and gender diversity has been linked to increased sales revenue, a wider customer base, greater market share and as a result of that, higher profits.

In the workforce, diversity has also been said to lead to positive outcomes; there’s enough research to support the argument that the diversity of teams can become a major enabler in any office and industry. On top of fostering mutual respect and understanding, and combining different points of views and experiences, diversity can be the very spark of creativity critical for innovation. 

Across the board, studies have shown that diversity matters–and it pays. McKinsey & Co’s latest report, “Delivering through diversity” shows that the more diverse the leadership team, the better the company’s financial performance.

Looking at data from 1,000 companies across 12 companies, the consultancy found that those ranking in the top quarter for gender diversity were 21 percent more likely to see above-average profitability than those in the fourth quartile. 

When it came to ethnic diversity, the numbers told an even more dramatic story: companies in the top quartile were 33 percent more likely to see above-average profitability than those with less diverse leadership teams.


This builds a strong business case for universities to include suppliers as part of the conversation on diversity and inclusion. As National Association of Educational Procurement (NAEP) CEO Doreen Murner says, supplier diversity is the “third leg” of the diversity agenda in higher education, after the diversity of the student body and staff.

More than just fulfilling a compliance requirement, universities could turn supplier diversity into a core business imperative, actively promoting it and measuring every activity, even using it as a marketing tool to boost recruitment efforts. 

And why not, when universities everywhere are struggling to find and retain their competitive edge in a market that’s become increasingly saturated?

As multiple rankings and student surveys have shown, sustainability wins in student recruitment. Today’s generation of learners want their place of study to actively incorporate and promote sustainable development efforts.

And sustainability doesn’t just encompass building a net-zero or carbon-neutral campus. Diversity and inclusion too are important drivers of sustainable development. 

As EDF says, by weaving supplier diversity into its marketing and advertising efforts, a college or university “creates economic opportunities that impact the communities where it does business.” 

“It is this type of leverage — aligned with the institution’s stated values and commitments — that wins in the marketplace for students, staff, faculty and alumni leadership.”