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Inclusion and Diversity in higher education – key thoughts from the HEPI / Oracle roundtable

  • 15 March 2019

On Monday, 4th of March HEPI, with the support of Oracle hosted a roundtable on Equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education. The scale of the problem – particularly with regard to race – will be familiar to many, including the statistic that of 19,000 professors in the UK, only 115 are black and only 25 are black women.

There was a strong level of feeling around the table about the scale of this problem and discussion of the complexity of the intersections between various forms of disadvantage. As one of our speakers, Gary Loke, Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery at Advance HE set out for us, it is important to see all forms of disadvantage as intersectional including when thinking about race:

Our other speaker, Professor Kalwant Bhopal, author of White Privilege, was clear that more institutions need to commit themselves to tackling racial disparities and argued this could be best achieved through universities joining and engaging with the Racial Equality Charter run by Advance HE. She argued that this drive needs to come from all Vice-Chancellors rather than just a few and recommended that they:

  • take a long-term approach to closing attainment gaps;
  • engage with people who are uncomfortable talking about race;
  • bring in mandatory unconscious bias training (as a minimum);
  • encourage greater visibility and representation of existing BME staff to promote them as role models; and
  • use formal mentoring schemes, to displace informal mentoring that is more likely to exclude black people.

In a wide-ranging and challenging discussion, some of the key issues and reported solutions that need highlighting include:

  • Participants agreed on the importance of looking at the challenge of staff diversity and student diversity together. Many attendees spoke about how the issue of a lack of black role models among academic staff contributes to the low proportion of black students progressing from being a student into doing a PhD and then becoming an academic researcher.
  • Institutions aiming to tackle race issues with their staff should not underestimate the difficulty in creating a safe space for people to discuss the issue. This first step was recorded as a major challenge by some institutions.
  • Institutions should not assume they can just copy policies that work in other places. Instead they should be ready to drill down into the detail behind wider attainment gaps. One senior figure reported that in their institution, a problem with high non-continuation rates by black students was largely explained by a single department. This kind of detail is essential in designing appropriate responses to it.

Institutional leadership on diversity issues need to go beyond vague rhetoric, as many participants felt this was all that some institutions were doing. They discussed the need for universities to have a wide team of senior and middle managers focused on the issue. People talked about some institutions having only a single senior person assigned to an inclusion role, but they were expected to work on this outside of the main day job and didn’t have assigned time or other resources for this. Other institutions had individual leaders who were passionate about the issues of diversity and inclusion, but that this does not always translate into significant action because middle managers lack the resources to take meaningful action and were also given a multitude of other priorities to attend to – the “squeezed middle” in our HE institutions.

It was widely agreed that it was a challenge to get institutions to invest significant resources, rather than just lip service to diversity problems. Suggestions for how to incentivise this change included:

  • We need to shift the narrative to talk about the “diversity bonus”: work to quantify the ‘bottom line cost’ to institutions of the talent wasted by racism. If figures could capture the lost students who don’t enter a university, drop out, don’t continue into doctoral study or into post-doctoral research, they would demonstrate how much universities were being harmed by institutional racism.
  • There is a need for wider recognition and reward for universities that show best practice. One participant suggested that the debate around diversity failures in elite institutions ‘sucked all the oxygen out of the room’, leaving places developing best practice not getting sufficient attention. Equally public focus on the least inclusive institutions provided a fig leaf for the sector to hide behind rather than an incentive to improve.
  • Policy needs to provide greater penalties and incentives. As it was said that some universities were allowed to get away with not taking the issue seriously, pointing to the fact that no university’s student access plan has ever been rejected.

On the 17th of May, Oracle will be hosting another event on Race Equality and Cultural Harmony for Higher Education Institutions and other organisations.  

For further details and to attend please follow the link below:


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