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Saturday, 2nd December 2023



Atul K. Shah reviews this latest report by the Equality Challenge Unit

Higher Education is one of the great assets of Britain. It has an international reputation, and continues to draw top students from all over the world with a strong magnetic field. The benefits of these institutions to the UK economy and society are huge. In his foreword, Prof Cleary notes: “This report shows that whatever ideals we aspire to within our institutions, the reality is frequently rather different. ... Such cultures and practices, whether conscious or unconscious are especially reprehensible in institutions built on academic freedom and values.”

In order to champion Equality in this sector, the Equality Challenge Unit was established and has just commissioned a major piece of research on race equality in this sector – It is called ‘The experience of black and minority ethnic staff in higher education in England’ and the full report can be downloaded here:


The research was set up by a special high quality race forum chaired by Prof Mark Cleary, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bradford and comprising of senior staff from the sector, either academics, senior managers of trade union representatives. The work was executed in several phases by a research team who used a combination of survey, interviews and focus groups to really understand the experiences of BME staff throughout the sector in England. It was funded by HEFCE.

Here are some pertinent findings from the research:

  • BME staff are underrepresented at senior levels
  • There were several cases where BME staff members had preferred not to complain about quite clear cases of discrimination for fear of escalating a problem and endangering their long term career – so there is a subtle silencing of personnel.
  • One institution suggested that as it had few BME staff, race was not an issue!
  • Whilst data about ethnicity is being collected, it is not being effectively monitored or used in any positive action programmes
  • The approach generally is more compliance oriented, trying to fulfil the minimal requirements of legislation, rather than pro-actively embrace diversity and seen as a core institutional asset. There is very little leadership in the area of race equality throughout the sector.
  • Promotion processes within institutions are often opaque and secretive and favouritism is common – the colour needs to ‘fit in’. There was a lot of personal discretion applied by senior staff which BME staff members found to be a real block to progress.
  • BME staff experienced being treated in an inferior way, and this led to a corrosion of confidence and self-esteem
  • Those who question or challenge are branded as trouble makers, with adverse consequences for progress and promotion
  • Each University has an Equality and Diversity unit to champion this agenda. However, their resources and budget differed significantly between institutions, and they generally had very little power, training or influence, especially when located in Human Resources – often the reporting is to a Deputy within HR rather than a Vice Chancellor. The biggest unit had four full time staff dedicated to the whole area of equality. Their function appears to be principally a compliance one.
  • Leadership and development was a particular problem as there were very few BME senior leaders or mentors, so the glass ceiling was felt in very real ways. Also their absence in the management of the University meant that the overall culture and ethos of these institutions is exclusive and mono-cultural. One academic stated ‘ they are more comfortable with me sweeping the floors than teaching. I see myself as a pro vice-chancellor, while they see me as a toilet cleaner, thats the difference.’ There is a lack of institutional awareness of the difficulties faced by BME staff members.

From the above, we can see the picture painted is very dire. The 2001 MacPherson investigation of the Metropolitan Police used the term ‘institutional racism’ – where processes, structures and cultures are such as to undermine people from ethnic backgrounds in all respects. Reading this report, all the evidence suggests that the HE sector in England is institutionally racist. This is a very serious finding, and one which deserves significant structural and institutional change, with leadership to match. Somehow as a country, we are still too far from seeing the fundamental benefits of diversity. We want to exploit it to our advantage, but not invest in its future. We seem to be scared and threatened by difference. And there is no strong muscle to champion change. This could be a major reason why we are paying such a heavy price today.

Dr. Atul K. Shah is author of ‘Celebrating Diversity’ and CEO of www.diverseethics.com a social enterprise dedicated to culture change. In 2010, he completed an epic Masala Tour of Britain, showcasing the fusion of East and West.

Article added on 8th November 2011 at 10:49am