I’m passionate about equity and social justice, and my research focuses on the experiences of marginalised groups in education, including black and minority ethnic (BME) groups and white minority groups such as gypsies and travellers. I also look at how universities can instigate change to create a more inclusive environment, not just for students but also for staff. As a member of the judging panels for the Athena SWAN Charter and Race Equality Charter, I have learned a lot about how equality policy translates into practice.
Last year I completed a research project that examined why BME academics choose to leave the UK to work in universities overseas, and whether ethnicity is a contributing factor. We found that it was – and that significantly more BME academics (83.6 per cent) consider going to work in another country than their white counterparts (71 per cent).
The research analysed more than 2,000 responses to a survey sent to all UK universities, as well as data from 42 face-to-face and Skype interviews. The study was funded by the Equality Challenge Unit, which aims to advance equality in higher education though programmes such as Athena SWAN and the Race Equality Charter.
We found that many academics were choosing to leave UK higher education because they felt they received unequal treatment compared to their white colleagues. Respondents talked about experiences of being excluded and marginalised, often in covert and subtle ways. Achieving promotion, especially at level six and seven, was a particular issue, reflecting national data that shows that the number of BME professors is very low. According to a report by race equality charity Runnymede, 92.4 per cent of UK university professors are white and there are only 17 black female professors in the UK.
Retaining academic talent
We clearly need to do more in our universities if we are to prevent the loss of talented academics. One way we can improve things is to make staff feel valued and recognise their achievements, for example through promotions. Our research report recommends that all universities ensure that their processes and criteria for promotion are transparent. Formal mentoring programmes should be in place for everyone to help them to prepare for promotion and BME academics with potential should be identified early on, with support offered perhaps up to a year before they apply for promotion. Recruitment and promotion processes should be reviewed and audited to make sure due process is being consistently followed.
Another important area is the provision of unconscious bias training, particularly for members of recruitment and promotion panels. This type of training encourages people to examine their own hidden biases and preconceptions and recognise the effect these can have on their decision making. In some universities it is already compulsory but practice currently varies.
Universities should also think about offering more formalised support to BME staff. For instance, something that many survey respondents felt they needed was a specific space where they could discuss issues around race and exclusion. Some universities already have formalised networks for BME staff – this is something all universities should consider.
These are just some of the recommendations we published with our research findings. The research report was sent to all UK Vice-Chancellors and some universities are now using the recommendations to inform their own diversity policies.
Enhancing inclusion at Southampton
The University of Southampton is keen to advance equality and diversity. We can see that in our success for the Athena SWAN Charter, for example. We have also introduced training for our promotion interviews; however, there are areas in which we can improve. I think we have to take a serious look at our staff make-up; as a workforce we should represent the student community we serve and at the moment I don’t think we do.
To move things forward we should consider signing up to the new Race Equality Charter, which requires universities to evidence the strategies they have in place to tackle race and inclusion issues. The process is similar to Athena SWAN, which has made a huge difference for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in the 10 years since it was introduced.
In my new role as Chair of the Equality and Diversity Committee for Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences, this is one of several initiatives that I’m very keen to explore. I am also keen to ensure that there is greater training and preparation available for level 6 and level 7 promotions, as well as the introduction of unconscious bias training for those on interview and promotion panels. I am very excited about this role and am looking forward to working with the faculty to make improvements in these areas.