It is high time UK higher education got its act together on ethnic diversity



The “glass ceiling” effect in advancing gender equality is well-recognised, but at least progress for women is being made in some quarters. Not so for staff from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

It is a stark fact that the ethnic composition of universities reflects a history of racial inequality. While widening access policies have focused on the student population, inequalities persist for staff especially at leadership levels. There is significant under-representation of BME staff at senior levels in the academy. For example, there are only three BME vice-chancellors and 20 UK-born BME deputy or pro vice-chancellors, compared with 530 white ones.

BME staff are half as likely as white staff to hold one of those top roles. A significantly higher proportion of white university staff (8.5 per cent) than BME staff (6.4 per cent) are in senior roles. The proportions of academics in senior roles are 15.7 per cent for whites and 12.8 per cent for minorities. Therefore it should not surprise that there is a perception of an impenetrable “concrete ceiling” for BME people in the academy.

But we should expect better and more from universities for many reasons.

There are social justice imperatives that universities should contribute to public benefit, modelling socially progressive spaces, not just being “white islands” in ethnically diverse communities. There are good business reasons, supported by strong evidence, that ethnically diverse leadership teams are more profitable. Lastly, universities operating globally will be more culturally sensitive and successful if they harness a wider range of skills and perspectives.

Right now seems a really good time to change a perception that universities are bastions of inequality, playing a regressive role in society, as was recently claimed by Kehinde Andrews in The Guardian.

Why are BME people relatively invisible at senior levels in universities? There are different stories to tell and a mixture of factors that can combine and harden into a “concrete ceiling”. Some involve the unconscious bias that operates on selection or promotion panels, when members collude to appoint “people like me”. Sometimes this masquerades as wanting to appoint a good “team player”, someone who will “fit in” and get on with everybody.

Sometimes there is a reticence to become involved at higher levels on the part of BME staff themselves. Perhaps their experience has taught them that putting themselves forward, speaking out, or distinguishing themselves against a backdrop of more mainstream colleagues has resulted in ostracism, suspicion or even hostility. It is hard not to internalise the reactions and responses of others like these, and to stop striving, or believing in or valuing ourselves.

“I don’t say anything anymore as it doesn’t do any good. I just keep quiet and hide in my office.” This sort of comment has been made to me countless times by our BME colleagues (in several institutions) who have tried to alert their white colleagues or managers about discrimination or acts of exclusion towards them. For managers, obviously, criticism is hard to hear, but what of managers’ duty of care to BME colleagues?

It may be the small rudenesses that add up, over time, to build a sense of unwantedness. Seeing, on student feedback for the nth time, that they can’t understand your accent, or overhearing a student say, “Why do we have to have foreigners teaching us?”  Such repeated comments provide a formidable micro-structure around which the concrete can set. 

Institutional climates themselves are made up of an amalgam of these different experiences. How do universities themselves create concrete ceilings? How do university policies and practices, cultural environments and management behaviours combine to support (or not) BME staff in advancement? Do we say one thing and do another, so that mixed messages result in confusion and dismay about how to attain seniority or positions of leadership?

It is high time we got our act together.

A recent study commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education will help us get answers to these questions so that we can begin to do this. The study will track participants in an LFHE programme, designed to develop emerging leaders from BME backgrounds.

Led by Leeds Trinity University in partnership with the University of East London, the Equality Challenge Unit, and Bradford University, the research will explore the nature of the concrete ceiling in universities. How do the different elements of this ceiling coalesce, and, using this knowledge, how can we create conditions to support successful progression for emerging leaders from a BME background?

Author Bios: Jan Fook is professor and director of the International Centre for Higher Education Educational Research at Leeds Trinity University. Fiona Ross is professor and director of research at The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.