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HE: the equality challenges

The equality challenges facing the UK higher education sector.

ECU’s annual statistical reports present a snapshot of the age, disability, ethnicity and gender of the higher education (HE) workforce in the academic year 2015/16, as well as on the interplay of these identities (for example, female black professors and male disabled senior managers).

In addition, our reports present high-level findings on institutional collection and return rates of staff gender reassignment, religion and belief and sexual orientation data.

The full report provides national figures which can be used:

  • to consider the diversity and inclusivity of the HE workforce as a whole
  • to consider change and progress over time
  • by individual institutions for benchmarking purposes


Age >

The proportion of mature students – that is, those over the age of 21 upon entry – has fallen since 2003/04 and particularly since 2010/11, with 2015/16 marking its lowest level to date. A large proportion of mature students studied part-time and largely composed the research postgraduate degree level. Furthermore, mature students studying at the first degree undergraduate level had higher rates of leaving HE without qualifying, receiving a degree class lower than a 2:1, and lower rates of progressing onwards to further study. This is particularly relevant in light of intersections with other protected characteristics.  A high proportion of female students aged 36 an over, disclosed as disabled and the attainment gap for mature BME students tended to widen with age.

Among staff, professional and support staff had a younger age profile than academic staff. Staff at both extreme ends of the age spectrum tended to be on different contracts than those in the middle age groups, with higher proportions in fixed-term and part-time roles. With regards to academics, staff in the youngest and oldest age groups tended to be on teaching-only contracts, and their leaving rates were markedly higher compared with those of academic staff in the middle age groups.

Disability >

Disability disclosure rates have steadily increased among students in UK higher education, rising from 5.4% in 2003/04 to 11.3% in 2015/16. However, disability disclosure rates continue to be markedly higher among undergraduates than postgraduates; among UK domiciled students compared with international students; and among students studying subjects such as creative arts and design compared with, for example, business and administrative studies and engineering and technology. There has been a noticeable rise in disabled students disclosing a mental health condition since 2014/15 as well has a striking drop in the percent of disabled students receiving DSA.

Among staff, disability disclosure rates have consistently increased in the last decade, with the proportion of staff declaring as disabled in 2015/16 more than double that reported in 2005/06. However, disability disclosure rates remained persistently lower among academic staff than professional and support staff and among professors compared with other academics. A larger proportion of full-time staff on open-ended/permanent contracts declared as disabled compared with staff on fixed-term contracts, however, the reverse was the case for part-time staff, where larger proportions of staff declared as disabled on fixed-term contracts. The proportion of academic leavers no longer in employment was considerably higher among disabled staff than non-disabled staff.

Ethnicity >

The proportion of students who identified as black and minority ethnic (BME) has steadily increased since 2003/04. BME students were better represented among first degree undergraduates and taught postgraduates levels than other undergraduates and research postgraduates, and within SET than non-SET subjects. There were pronounced differences in continuation and degree attainment outcomes for white and BME students, with lower rates of BME students continuing/qualifying and receiving a first/2:1 compared with their white peers. However, outcomes varied considerably by ethnic group, with particularly wide gaps observed between white and black students in relation to continuation and degree attainment.

Staff working in higher education have increasingly become more ethnically diverse, with an increase in BME staff most pronounced among academics. However, differences persist, with lower proportions of both UK and non-UK BME staff than white staff on open-ended/permanent contracts, in senior management positions, and on higher salary bands. Proportions of BME staff varied greatly between subject areas, with BME staff comprising relatively high proportions of academics working in SET compared with non-SET. Leaving rates among BME academics were also higher than for white academics.

Gender >

Women continued to make up the majority of students studying in the UK. However, men were better represented among EU/non-EU students than UK domiciled students; among full-time students than part-time students; and among those studying SET subjects than non-SET subjects. There were clear gender imbalances at the subject level, with men comprising a large majority of students studying computer science and engineering and technology, but only a small proportion of those in education, subjects allied to medicine, and veterinary science.

Despite comprising the majority of staff working in UK higher education, women remained underrepresented among academic staff, staff in SET subject areas and in senior management roles. A larger proportion of women than men worked in professional and support roles, worked parttime, on fixed-term contracts, and in lower salary bands. Gender pay gaps remain highest among academic staff, though were still evident among professional and support staff. The proportion of female academic leavers was higher than the proportion of male academic leavers.

Intersectionality >

Intersectionality is increasingly a topic of consideration for equality and diversity practitioners. Apart from growing interest in this area, this trend is also driven by institutional and procedural requirements, such as the new Athena SWAN charter principle on intersectionality, the inclusion of intersectionality in the Race Equality Charter principles and the addition of requirements on intersectionality to outcome agreement guidance in Scotland.

ECU has produced a research and data briefing on Intersectional approaches to equality research and data that can be downloaded here.

New protected characteristics >

The Equality Act 2010 extended the number of protected characteristics to cover new areas including gender reassignment, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. Changes to the HESA student record for 2012/13 allowed institutions to return this information on an optional basis. This section presents high level findings on collection and monitoring rates. Because data is currently voluntary to return, we do not yet have a national demographic picture of the HE student population in relation to gender reassignment, religion and belief, or sexual orientation. ECU encourages institutions to collect and return these data where appropriate. Once the data begins to be captured and the numbers become reliable, ECU hopes to provide further detail on these characteristics in future reports.