Universities must aim higher on ethnic equality and diversity

A happy place, for everyone. Brunel University London, CC BY-NC-SA

Universities have a long way to go before they become exemplars of ethnic equality and diversity. That’s the thrust of a new report published by race equality think-tank, the Runnymede Trust. As David Lammy MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community, puts it in his foreword to the volume:

Despite the lofty ideals of universities, they do no better – and are in fact doing worse – than many other institutions in British society when it comes to race equality.

The Runnymede publication, brings together 15 short essays by academics and policy experts, outlining a number of major causes for concern. Ethnic minorities have lower university admission rates relative to comparably qualified white peers. They also have poorer university experiences as students, lower degree results than their A-level grades would predict, and more uncertain graduate job prospects.

There is also a dearth of black and minority ethnic academics, especially at senior levels. The report found there was just 17 black female professors in the UK. In spite of all of this, there is a low priority given to developing and implementing ethnic equality and diversity policies within universities. Addressing these problems requires radical change.

Unfair admissions

Empirical evidence presented in the report shows that ethnic minorities are less likely to be offered places at Russell Group universities than white applicants, even when they have the same grades and “facilitating subjects” at A Level.

The report shows that offer rates are 3-16 percentage points lower for ethnic minority applicants to Russell Group universities, after differences in A Level attainment have been taken into account.

Runnymede Trust, CC BY-NC-ND

Even applicants from the high-performing Chinese and Indian group – which are well represented at Russell Group universities – are less likely to be offered places. These ethnic inequalities in admissions chances are shown to hold for other universities as well, not just the Russell Group institutions, indicating that this is in fact a sector-wide problem.

The report highlights a clear need for universities to undertake searching reviews of their admissions policies and practices. Steps must be taken to ensure that admissions decisions are not affected by unconscious bias, while positive action may be needed to address the chronic under-representation of some ethnic minority groups at some institutions.

Universities are being called upon to make their applications and admissions data available – in suitably anonymised form – for independent analysis by researchers. Open data is now widely considered to be a crucial ingredient in the accountability of public institutions, and universities are no exception.

Poorer student experiences

The report highlights the exclusion and rejection felt by many black university students as they navigate a mono-cultural curriculum, confront lower tutor expectations about their ability to do well in their studies and experience overtly racist interactions on campus. There is a clear need for universities to offer more culturally diverse curricula, to promote inclusive teaching and learning practices, and to become actively anti-racist institutions.

This means moving away from a “deficit model” which sees ethnic minority students as lacking in ability or aspiration. Instead, universities should see the barriers to full and equal participation in university life as needing to be dismantled rather than overcome. Crucially, it also means consulting with ethnic minority students about what needs to change rather than taking a purely top-down approach.

Under representation in academia

The report also reminds us that ethnic minorities are under-represented among academic staff, especially in professorial roles and senior management positions.

Many ethnic minority academics report feeling untrusted and overly scrutinised by colleagues and managers, and overlooked when it comes to promotion. The solutions proposed range from solidifying career mentoring schemes for ethnic minority academics, to adopting quotas to ensure the inclusion of ethnic minority applicants on recruitment and promotion shortlists.

Again, a major part of the solution requires recognising the need for institutional cultural change. The Equality Challenge Unit has developed a training pack designed to help university staff understand, recognise and resist unconscious bias.

It has also been trialling a Race Equality Charter Mark programme which would enable universities to gain accreditation for their efforts and successes in addressing ethnic equality and diversity concerns. The take-up of these policy initiatives by many universities represents a potentially significant step towards lasting institutional cultural change.

Changing cultures

Yet the Runnymede report highlights the ever-present risk that policies and programmes aimed at addressing equality and diversity issues may become substitutes for action – the goal becomes filling out the required paperwork rather than committing to make real changes.

When the passing of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act in 2000 first required universities to develop and publish race equality policies, many universities were slow to comply. Since then, these requirements have been downgraded to mere guidance following the implementation of the 2010 Equality Act.

The genuine development and effective implementation of equality and diversity policies requires committed support on the part of university leaders to the idea that diversity is a valuable institutional asset and should be actively promoted as such. The time has come for universities and the public bodies that monitor and support them to pick up diversity and run with it.

Next read: Race and academia: Diversity among UK students and leaders