This guest blog has been Kindly provided by Fitzroy Morrissey of All Souls College, Oxford.

In March 2018, the Government published its Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, which set out some ideas about how to respond to the challenges highlighted by the 2016 Casey Review into opportunity and integration in Britain. Such challenges include:

  • ethnic segregation in communities and schools: in 2017, 60% of ethnic minority pupils were in schools where ethnic minority pupils made up the majority;
  • higher unemployment among ethnic minorities: 59% of women of Bangladeshi or Pakistani ethnicity are economically inactive, as are 50% of Black British 16 to 24 year-olds;
  • lack of English language proficiency among ethnic minorities: 770,000 people in England over 16 say they cannot speak English well or at all, including 282,136 people of Muslim faith; and
  • regressive cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage: according to a 2015 study, an estimated 137,000 women in England and Wales have suffered FGM.

These are just some of the evidently serious issues that need fixing if we are to build an integrated modern Britain – perhaps best defined as a society in which people of different backgrounds live together with shared values as well as in shared spaces. Following on from the Green Paper, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is currently looking to engage different sectors of society (business, the public sector, the voluntary sector, schools and universities) in the subject, prior to the publication of the Government’s response later in the year.

This is where universities come in. There is a good argument to be made that universities are among the greatest drivers of successful integration in our society. They are places where young people of different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds can come together and interact as equals, and can learn, innovate and exchange ideas on the basis of a shared set of underlying values such as free speech and academic integrity and a shared identification with the university community.

If this is true – and we should hope, despite the recent negative headlines, that it largely still is – then the higher education sector should do more to tell this story. A good place to start would be the collection of reliable and reportable data. A survey of students focused on integration metrics, asking questions such as ‘How often do you interact with students from other ethnic / religious / socio-economic backgrounds in lectures / seminars / societies / sports clubs?’ could highlight the positives and also show where – and which – universities need to do better. Best practice – such as university-based initiatives to support English language learning in the local community – should also be shared and replicated at other higher education institutions.

There also needs to be a move towards thinking and talking in terms of integration. One of the main buzzwords in recent years – whether in relation to access work or the curriculum – has been diversity. While increasing diversity is certainly a worthy goal, we ought to recognise that diversity needs to be complemented by integration. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating a diversity of isolated communities, rather than diversity within a single unified community.

Universities should therefore try to think and talk about their access work in terms of the contribution being made to the creation of a diverse and integrated modern Britain. They should measure – and the Office for Students should measure them on – not only how many BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students, students from religious minorities or students eligible for Free School Meals they admit, but also how integrated those students are when they arrive.

Finally, universities should also be open to the more radical ideas in the discussion on integration. For instance, a recent Citizens UK report titled The Missing Muslims: Unlocking British Muslim Potential for the Benefit of All recommended universities should consider pairing with Islamic seminaries to provide accredited educational courses for aspiring British imams, so that they would ‘receive an educational qualification as well as a religious qualification’. Which universities will be bold enough to take up this challenge?

The Government’s integration strategy is due out around the end of the year. Universities should look to engage with it in a spirit of opportunity and collaboration. The higher education sector has the ability – and, I would add, a responsibility – to help bring about a positive transformation in this area, and the first step is for those leading and working within the sector to recognise that.