On improving diversity, the sector has a clear choice: lead or be led

With a minister intent on ‘revolution’, there is a tactical, as well as a moral, case for universities to focus on improving ethnic minority representation

November 5, 2015
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The Conservative Home website is getting very excited about the splurge of reform heading universities’ way. In fact, it goes so far as to suggest that “there is a view that Jo Johnson is the real Johnson to watch”, so impressed is it with his plans to shake up a stale sector that is resistant to change.

The universities minister’s “accountancy and transparency revolution”, it says, is in the tradition of Michael Gove’s overhaul of Ofsted, Theresa May’s crime maps and Jeremy Hunt’s My NHS data information service.

The piece states confidently that the Higher Education Funding Council for England “will go” (although, as a discerning reader of Times Higher Education, you’ll have heard it here first), before rehearsing many of the known themes of the imminent Green Paper.

One of these is about improving access among disadvantaged students, including those from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Last week, David Cameron announced that from 2017 Ucas would make university applications “name-blind”, to tackle bias against black applicants. This follows a target set by Johnson last month for a 20 per cent increase in black and ethnic minority students by 2020.

Concerns persist about many of the coming policy interventions, but this should not be among them (it has previously been pointed out that London Metropolitan University admits almost as many black students as the entire Russell Group put together; this should be surprising, but isn’t).

The evidence of a problem isn’t only about numbers; last week we ran an essay by a black Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford who described his unease at his experience there – the posters in a communal kitchen using black celebrities and gangsta language to remind people to pay for their drinks; the frequent requests for ID at the college gate; and the time that he and two Kenyan friends were stopped and asked if they were construction workers.

In our cover story this week, we delve deeper into the statistics on diversity among both students and staff, drawing on the latest data from the Equality Challenge Unit.

There are signs of progress. The UK has its first black vice-chancellor (although it’s notable that Baroness Amos, director of Soas, University of London, did not make it to the top by climbing the slippery academic pole). The number of black and ethnic minority staff overall is increasing too. And the trend is the same among students.

But problems remain. A marked lack of diversity at senior levels; lower average salaries for black academics; a higher proportion of BME staff on fixed-term contracts; and an understandable propensity for what Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Southampton, calls “academic flight”, in the face of a “covert, subtle and nuanced” system of the incumbent elite protecting and replicating itself.

Perhaps this suggests a route to securing genuine change: by appealing to that self-interest that exists in academia (as it does, to be fair, in every walk of life).

Because as Jo Johnson’s agenda amply demonstrates, universities are burdened with the most undesirable narrative that higher education is something of a protectionist racket.

Getting to grips with the diversity problem would refute that narrative, and in doing so strengthen the case for the autonomy that they need to flourish. It’s also the right thing to do.


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