Facing the taboo of race discrimination in higher education

ECU has worked on advancing equality and diversity in higher education for over a decade. We work with universities who are dedicated to tackling the issues we highlight, but stubborn inequalities remain.

Over the past two years we have seen a significant increase in work related to gender equality. Over the last 10 years ECU has been proud to run the Athena SWAN charter mark for the progression of women in the sciences. We are currently extending this to all academic disciplines. Universities who sign-up to the charter mark are, in a public manner, acknowledging the gender inequalities within their culture and processes, engaging in dialogue about them and committing to an action plan outlining the work they will undertake to address the issues.

Achieving the same result for race equality has taken longer and we are still not there. Universities are not unique in this; there is a universal reticence within UK society to talk candidly about race, racial inequalities, and tackling institutional racism. The ‘r’ word has been a taboo that we have been reluctant to address.

Racial inequalities in universities


White British students are 16% more likely to be awarded a first class degree or 2:1 degree than BME British students, and that has remained virtually unchanged for over eight years. What is more concerning is that analysis by ethnic group shows that over the same period the attainment gap for Black students has been 26-28%.

This is a systemic issue that the higher education sector needs to tackle as a whole.


There are more UK-national black and minority ethnic (BME) staff working in higher education now than there were eight years ago (6.5% of staff in 2012/13 compared with 4.8% in 2003/04 ). However, with 14% of respondents to the 2011 census reporting their ethnicity as BME or other, at 6.5% the UK higher education BME population is disproportionately below that of the UK population.

There are only 60 Black professors in the UK. This represents 0.4% of all UK-national professors highlighting that significant issues such as career progression and retention continue to be of concern.

Forthcoming ECU research suggests that BME academics are much more likely than their white British peers to consider moving overseas to progress their careers. There are universities in the United States, Canada and Australia who are already benefiting from our lack of appreciation for British-born, British funded talent, and will continue to do so unless something is done.

What can we do about it

ECU has developed, and is currently trialling a race equality charter mark for the higher education sector. We have 32 universities taking part. These organisations should be acknowledged and praised for recognising that there are serious issues that they can, and are willing to, take steps to address. Until we can talk sensibly about racial inequalities, we cannot properly address them. These 32 universities are making a public demonstration of their commitment to do just that. It requires high-level commitment, in-depth self-analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, consulting with and surveying BME staff and students, and developing an ambitious three-year action plan.

They have until April 2015 to submit an application to ECU for the charter mark. Some might have to withdraw: not because they don’t care, but because the charter mark application is a serious undertaking. Some will apply and will not be successful. Again, this is not because they are not trying but because the charter mark requires considerable work and they may require more time to decide on their course of action that will make a difference for BME staff and students at their organisation.

Achieving the charter mark is not the end point, it is just the start. In three years time successful institutions must re-apply in order to retain the charter and demonstrate that they have made progress against their plans.

ECU believes that the sector can advance race equality but it will require more institutions to make this commitment, in the same way that the positive impact of Athena SWAN is now being seen for women in science. An open and honest dialogue, adequate resourcing, and a strong commitment from senior leaders within the sector are necessary for there to be further progress in tackling longstanding racial inequalities.

About ECU

Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) works to further and support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education institutions across the UK and in colleges in Scotland.

ECU provides a central source of expertise, research, advice and leadership. Our approach is evidence-based, using research to identify and change practices that unfairly exclude, marginalise or disadvantage people.

We support universities and colleges to build an inclusive culture that values the benefits of diversity, to remove barriers to progression and success for all staff and students, and to challenge and change unfair practices that disadvantage individuals or groups.

Chris Hall,
Head of Stakeholder Relations and Communications
Equality Challenge Unit
7th floor, Queens House
55/56 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
London, WC2A 3LJ