Advancing Diversity and Equality In Higher Education

Equality Challenge Unit was formed in 2001 by Universities UK to advance equality and diversity in Higher Education.

Since then, ECU has developed into an independent organisation, delivering a number of programmes which directly support universities in tackling inequality relating to both staff and students in universities. ECU provides universities with information, advice and guidance on all equality issues including race, gender, and disability to name a few.

ECU has traditionally been funded through a number of other higher education sector bodies including Universities UK, GuildHE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the Scottish Funding Council and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland. The funding ECU receives in Scotland also extends to further education colleges.

One of ECU’s best known initiatives is the Athena SWAN charter, which was initially created to address the underrepresentation of women participating in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine and Mathematics), but has since expanded to cover Business, Arts, Humanities and Law, and focuses on all types of gender equality issues.

Now in its tenth year, Athena SWAN has become a nationally recognised symbol of a university’s commitment to gender equality in the UK and its success has recently been emulated in Australia where the scheme has been rolled out for the first time.

Following in the footsteps of Athena SWAN’s success, earlier this year, ECU announced it would be piloting its first ever charter that recognises advancements tackling racial inequality within higher education. ECU’s Race Equality Charter aims to inspire a strategic approach to making cultural and systemic changes that will make a real difference to minority ethnic staff and students. It focuses on:

  • Professional and support staff
  • Academic staff
  • Student attainment, diversity of the curriculum and progression of students into academia

In the last academic year, ECU ran a pilot of the Race Equality Charter, and in August announced that 8 institutions were successful in achieving the award. They were:

  • De Montfort University
  • Kings College London
  • Kingston University
  • Royal Holloway University London
  • Staffordshire University
  • University of Hertfordshire
  • UCL (incorporating the Institute of Education)
  • University of Manchester

Upon conclusion of the pilot, ECU undertook an extensive evaluation with a view to enhancing the Race Equality Charter in time for its full launch in January 2016. ECU is currently in the process of appointing patrons for the charter and will host a formal awards ceremony and launch event at the beginning of next year.

At the start of 2015, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced that, due to changes in the funding environment, it would no longer be in a position to fund ECU’s work from 2016 onwards. Due to the critically important work that the organisation carries out on behalf of the higher education sector, ECU confirmed that it would continue on its mission of advancing equality and diversity by becoming a subscription-based organisation, and from 2016 onwards, higher education institutions could pay an annual free which would allow them access to ECU’s resources, advice services, the Athena SWAN charter and the Race Equality Charter.

ECU’s Chief Executive David Ruebain said ‘2016 promises be a landmark year for ECU. Our new subscription model will give subscribing institutions an increased role in driving our work forward, and we will soon be announcing a new programme of work and delivery plan that will significantly raise the level of discussion on a number of key equality and diversity issues within the higher education sector. I am particularly excited about the future of our Race Equality Charter and look forward to ECU supporting institutions in advancing racial equality through their engagement with the programme’.

In November, ECU will be releasing its annual statistics report. This publication provide a full breakdown on the makeup of students and staff in higher education institutions, and delivers a thorough analysis of a number of protected characteristics. The reports are widely used throughout the sector and contain important information on issues such as the attainment gap between Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) and non-BME students, the percentage of BME staff in university senior positions, and a large number of other statistics relating to gender, disability, religious belief, age and sexual orientation.

Equality Challenge Unit is the higher education sector’s definitive national body for promoting equality and diversity in the UK. It is committed to supporting the needs of higher education institutions in ensuring that universities are truly inclusive working and learning environments, and will continue to act as the sectors partner in equality and diversity into 2016 and beyond.

You can find out more about Equality Challenge Unit at