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Advancing equality and diversity in universities and colleges


Collecting equality data

What data your institution needs to report, and how to collect it.

Legal requirements

Higher education institutions (HEIs) have legal requirements to monitor and publish data as part of the public sector equality duty (PSED) of the Equality Act 2010. Similar provisions apply to HEIs in Northern Ireland through section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

The specific duties underpinning the PSED include requirements to:

  • Publish information about how their functions affect staff and students with different protected characteristics
  • Set measurable equality objectives (or outcomes in the case of Scotland) to meet the duty

In Scotland and Wales, institutions are also required to develop an evidence base of equality information to:

  • help assess the equality impact of policies and practices
  • inform the development of equality objectives (or outcomes).

Benefits of collecting data

Data gathering is an important component to identifying inequality, initiating activity and evaluating progress as required to meet the legislation outlined above. Collecting data on the protected characteristics can help institutions to:

  • establish an evidence base for activities, policies and  practice
  • assess whether policies and practices are equitable and fair and do not disproportionately affect different groups
  • use benchmarking to identify gaps in performance, seek new approaches for improvements, and adopt good practices

HESA returns

HEIs have a statutory obligation to submit certain data to the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA). Currently higher education institutions are required to return data on staff and students’ sex, race/ethnicity, disability and age as part of their annual staff and student records, and from 2017/18 religion or belief for the student record.

Institutions can return voluntary data on religion or belief for the staff record, sexual orientation and gender identity for staff and students, and on parental leave for staff. Data on the protected characteristics of marriage and civil partnership are not collected.

Further information from HESA:

Benefits of returning voluntary data to HESA

While it is important to understand one’s own institutional demographic composition, it is also useful to have a national picture of the higher education sector. Returning equality data to HESA will help to provide this and facilitate comparisons to address disadvantage.

For example, with years of data collection on ethnicity, we know there is a long-standing degree attainment gap between black and minority ethnic (BME) and white students (ie white students are more likely to attain a first/2:1 degree than their BME peers). There is now national and local level work to address this issue. With centralised data collection on the more recently introduced HESA data fields, there will be national data which will allow for the identification of disadvantage and  underrepresentation.

Wider monitoring

ECU encourages institutions to collect equality monitoring data on all the protected characteristics and analyse this information at key stages of the higher education life cycle. This can help to develop a deeper understanding of your staff and students and potential barriers they face.

For example, institutions may collect equality data as part of equal opportunities monitoring at the recruitment or enrolment stage, and as a part of internal surveys and procedures such as grievances or promotions.

Your institution may decide not to collect information on certain protected characteristics through formal monitoring data, because of low levels of disclosure, or perceived sensitivities. You will need to explore other means of collecting this evidence base.

Qualitative data >

Qualitative data is information that is generally in non-numerical form, for example personal narratives or accounts of experiences. This can be collected through focus groups, interviews or open text responses in surveys.

This data can provide fuller, richer information that can help us understand less quantifiable aspects, and is an important tool for steering work on inequality as well as demonstrating the results and impact of work to advance equality.

It can help develop an in-depth understanding of what progress has been made and why by taking account of people’s thoughts and experiences.

A qualitative approach can help gain insight into staff and student:

  • perceptions
  • attitudes
  • behaviour
  • experiences
  • awareness of equality issues
  • knowledge and skills