StellarHE: Ferhana Hashem’s Learning on Leadership

Black, Asian and ethnically diverse leaders have so many attributes to bring to the higher education sector: inclusive emotional intelligence, cultural competence, and inclusive leadership to name a few. And yet, many continue to be under-represented in senior roles whilst having to navigate daily negative experiences, from micro-aggressions to outright discrimination.

This is why we’ve developed the StellarHE programme, which supports and develops diverse leaders in the field of higher education.

The programme is a tried and tested development experience for diverse leaders in higher education, equipping them with the unique leadership competencies and strategies required to respond to the distinct challenges and opportunities they face as Black, Asian and ethnically diverse academic and professional staff.

In this blog series, we’ll introduce you to some recent StellarHE alumni and ask them about their experiences on the programme.

Introducing Ferhana Hashem, Reader in Health Services Research at the University of Kent

Ferhana is a Reader in Health Services Research at the University of Kent. Her primary research interests are rare diseases, palliative care, and life-limiting, long-term conditions. She also has a growing focus on the issue of ethnicity in health.

We sat down with Ferhana to find out why she joined the latest StellarHE cohort, the benefits she experienced, and the key learnings she took away from the programme.

Hi Ferhana. So, what motivated you to join the StellarHE programme?

At the time, I had applied for funding to enable me to take on a Co-Director role within the Department of Health’s regional research infrastructure. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive the funding we’d expected for the role, so I was forced to rethink my plans.

A huge issue in academia is the sheer number of people of colour, who are on the academic trajectory and have got stuck, essentially because they’ve been stopped by this ‘concrete’ ceiling.

After the disappointment of the funding, I decided to pursue a new direction, and had the idea to build an initiative to help support early career researchers from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

And what were your first impressions of the programme?

To be honest, I’m always a bit ambivalent when somebody says, ‘go and apply for this great leadership course’. I often think, ‘oh, no, it’s just another one of those, it won’t get me very far.’ So I didn’t know what to expect, and it was really through my colleague’s foresight and persuasion, that I did it.

However, the programme definitely exceeded my expectations! I’m not keen on courses that focus on organisational management theory and there wasn’t much of that, which was good. It felt more like a ‘teasing out’, coaching and mentoring process and it was good to meet people in similar positions to me.

What did you find the most surprising about the programme once you were taking part?

I think it was having the coaching time with Jackee Holder. I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, as coaching isn’t something I’d naturally gravitate towards, but I felt a real connection with Jackee, and I got a lot out of it. She’s a very inspiring person.

Every participant was asked to identify a leadership challenge that they wanted to tackle in their organisation. What was that challenge for you, and how have things progressed?

My challenge was to look at the external funding process, which is integral to how academia works. As part of my role, I have to submit lots of grant applications to the National Institute for Health and Care Research. My work depends on those applications being approved. As an academic, your success in getting a research grant can make or break your career.

In short, if you don’t get the funding, you don’t get published, and you can’t get a permanent contract. So I wanted to look at why some people tend to be more successful in securing funding.

However, I soon realised this is part of a much wider systemic challenge, which I can’t tackle alone, so I’ve submitted a grant application to Research England, which is being reviewed at the moment.

Of course, the other part of the equation is looking at the demographics of the funding panels themselves. I have obtained some data from UKRI about the profile of their funding committees, so I will be writing a paper on that.

It’s all part of my wider research idea around how systemic issues impact the careers of black and minority ethnic academics.

Having completed the programme, do you feel that you have a leadership style or signature that you can define?

I’ve definitely evolved my leadership style. I’d define it as friendly and approachable, but with high expectations of people. I’m looking for them to deliver. I always strive to be fair, approachable, generous, and supportive of others, but at the same time I’m very clear about my expectations.

What’s the one key learning you’ve taken from the programme?

Visibility, visibility, visibility.

Following the programme, I realised I needed to get my name out there, and that’s impacted the way I think. I’m going to update my online profile and I’ve got a new photograph to use.

I’ve also started looking at other people and thinking ‘well if they do that, I can do it as well’. The next step is to make sure my voice is being heard. So even though I’ve got this visibility it’s important it’s used as a platform for contributing to diversifying the university and the wider higher education sector.

And which aspects of the programme had the greatest impact on you, looking back?

Meeting up in person was where everyone’s stars really aligned. It was nice to have a bit of a chat and be sociable. I enjoyed getting to know people, finding common ground, and discovering facets of their personality.

We’d already shared lots of our lived experiences as part of the programme before that, so there was an immediate point of connection when we met.

Do you think that the StellarHE programme is necessary for the higher education sector?

Yes, definitely. For people who have had a traditional, middle-class upbringing and an academic education, it’s easy to fit the norm. They can advocate for themselves, present themselves, and they know how to engage with people in different situations, whereas those of us from different backgrounds often need to be taught how.

It’s also a very valuable reminder that you do have the skills, you can put yourself out there, and there’s value in what you say. In particular, it’s the mentoring and the coaching which is really important.

What would you say to other Black, Asian and ethnically diverse staff working in higher education, or to leaders like yourself who might be wondering if the programme is for them?

There is definitely value in doing the programme. In academic environments, you’re often expected to act and talk in a certain way. The programme helps you to refine the skills you need to get ahead, but in a way that feels comfortable and authentic to you.

Join our next StellarHE cohort!

The StellarHE programme builds on modern leadership models and thinking to help diverse leaders progress in senior management roles.

We use a variety of learning approaches including leadership diagnostics, facilitated dialogue, experiential activities and reflective coaching to equip participants with the tools and strategies to drive sustained change in the organisations they work for.

If you would like to register for the next cohort taking place from January to April 2024, please visit:

Please note, we are accepting applications up until 15th December 2023.

We’ll be sharing more of our team’s insights over the coming months, keep checking back to see our latest thinking…