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Dismantling Racial Inequalities in Higher Education

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Saturday, 20 Feb 2021, 11:52

On 28 January 21, I attended an online seminar, dismantling racial inequalities in higher education, which was organised by the OU Black and Minority Ethnic Research Group. The aim of this group is to “discuss research and scholarship around race, ethnicity, coloniality and decolonisation”.

What follows is my own brief summary of the event, which has been taken from a set of notes that I made during the session. I’m sharing just in case it may be of interest to colleagues.

The quotes that I’ve provided below are quotes from the notes that I made during the event, rather than word for word quotes from each of the speakers. 

Introductions and launch of seminar series

Delegates were welcomed by Dr Jenny Douglas, Senior Lecturer in Health Promotion and Chair of the BME Researchers Group, who also chaired the seminar.

The first speaker was Baroness Valerie Amoswho gave a short introductory presentation to launch the seminar series. Baroness Amos spoke of structural inequality in education and highlighted that the current “pandemic exacerbates disparities”.

It was highlighted that there are very few black people occupying leadership positions in HE. Academics are also faced with the pressure of working on short term contracts, and the student attainment gap is substantial. There are other issues, such as what is taught, and access to research funding and scholarships.

I also noted down some very direct points: gradual change isn’t good enough, there needs to be critical mass, and it is hard to build alliances with other staff who are themselves employed on insecure terms and conditions. An important point that I noted down, which later became one of the themes of the event was that change requires a whole institution approach. 

Interventions for closing degree award gaps

The second presenter was Professor Marcia Wilson, the OU’s new Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, who spoke about “Interventions for closing degree award gaps”.

Marcia spoke about the degree award gap; there is a sector wide attainment gap between black and white students in terms of their final degree classifications. Marcia mentioned a recent Wonkhe blog Time's up for the Awarding Gap and emphasised the statistic that was contained within the following paragraph: “The white-BAME gap and the white-Black gap have each on average changed by 0.3 percentage points between 2003-04 and 2018-19. At this rate of change it will be in 2070-71 when the white-BAME awarding gap will close, and 2085-86 when the white-Black awarding gap closes.” 

The extent of the gap was also laid clear in another statistic from the same article: "The degree awarding gap was most pronounced between Black male qualifiers (of whom 54.5 per cent received a first/2:1) and white female qualifiers (82.9 per cent, a difference of 28.4 percentage points)".

An important question was asked: why the lack of progress? There was a reference to a deficit perspective; the blaming of students. Also, institutional discussions may only occur when universities are exploring how to apply to the race equality charter (Advance HE). 

Another thought was perhaps equality and attainment could be linked to other measures of institutional success, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework. A further question was asked: how come some institutions are awarded a Gold teaching excellence status, and yet no black students have gained first class degrees? A source of this data is the Wonkhe article Universities’ shame - unpicking the black attainment gap.

Another question is: what is the way forward? Some answers might be found in leadership, conversations, a diverse and inclusive environment, and trying to understand what works.

In a 2017 HEFCE report four areas of causes were highlighted: curricula and learning; relationships between staff and students; psychosocial and identity factors; social, cultural and economic capital.

There is also the importance of teacher expectations. This relates to the question of “what do we expect from our students?” The point being that we should have high expectations for all students.

An interesting reference Marcia gave was to a report by NUS, entitled “mark my words, not my name”

One of the final points I noted was leaders need to monitor the gaps; they must know their data. 

Who gets to do research?

The next talk was by Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, University College London. Professor Uchegbu made the point that diversity is good for everyone, and that diverse decision making is good for an organisation. The point is simple: where there is inequity, everyone suffers. 

A reference was made to a McKinsey and Company report entitled why diversity matters. A related point was that when a diverse team works together, it is more likely to follow evidence, rather than follow dogma. I noted down the following important words: “it’s good to talk about social justice, but also about organisational resilience”.

A reflection was that problems start at secondary school. In years 10 and 11, students are achieving at the same level. By the time students are 18, 24% of Chinese students get 3 As, whereas only 5% of black pupils get 3 As. Furthermore, 0.2% of UK professors are female and black. This was accompanied by the observation that it should be ten times this figure to be in keeping with population statistics.

One thing that I did learn is that some of these statistics are highlighted on the OU OpenLearn Race and Ethnicity hub. A question I must ask myself is "why didn’t I know about this resource?"

There is also the question of what can be done. There were a number of perspectives that need to be considered: institutional responses, organisational interventions (I hope I’ve noted this down correctly) and personal responses. There needs to be support for peers and mentors. There is the also the need to gather data, articulate what the data says, act to respond to the data, monitor the impact of change, and repeat.

Towards the end of Ijeoma’s presentation, we were directed to UCL’s statement on Race, which emphasised the need for an institutional response.

In a question and answer session, I again noted the importance of holding the view that it is organisations that have deficits, not the individuals. In this vein, the onus of positive action lies on the institution. 

Lessons from my journey

The final presentation of the day was by Professor Dawn Edge, who was from Manchester University. Professor Edge's talk  had the title: Becoming a Black Woman Professor – lessons from my journey.

Some key points I noted were the importance of understanding the roles of engagement (or, how things work within an organisation), understanding what really counts and understanding the process for applying for things. I noted down points that will be familiar to many: the creation of a CV, and gathering of supporting statements. I noted down the words: package yourself and sell yourself and “gain support from peers and allies”.


I was immediately struck by the striking (and uncomfortable) statistics that were shared by the speakers. A number of the speakers shared thoughts about suggestions about what could be done, and that different responses need to be considered, ranging from the institutional to the personal. Following their example, I asked myself: “what can I do?” 

I’ve taken away a number of points. I need to listen (and make the time to listen) and ask questions. I should look to creating diverse teams whenever I have the opportunity to do so. I took away the point that mentoring and peer relationships are important. I should also always look to data, to see what it’s saying. Echoing the words of Professor Uchegbu: gather data, act, monitor, and repeat.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to the OU Black and Minority Ethnic Research Group for running what was a really thought-provoking event. Thanks are extended to Marcia Wilson for sending me a link to the Wonkhe blog that she mentioned during her talk.

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