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Advancing equality in higher and further education together

Published: 25/01/2018

ECU’s Chief Executive, David Ruebain, reflects on what has been achieved in promoting E&D in higher and further education, plus future opportunities.

With the imminent merger of the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) with the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE), ECU’s Chief Executive, David Ruebain, reflects on what has been achieved in promoting equality and diversity (E&D) in higher and further education, on the merger itself, and on the opportunities that it presents in advancing E&D in the sector for the future.   

What we’ve achieved together

As ECU prepares for the forthcoming merger with the HEA and LFHE, I am inspired for the future by just how much has been achieved in advancing equality and diversity (E&D) in the UK higher education (HE) sector and colleges in Scotland in even the past decade.

ECU’s analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows us that, for example, student and staff disability disclosure rates have increased significantly over the past ten years as has the representation of minority ethnic students and women in academia.

Still, the evidence tells us that much remains to be achieved if the sector is to fully benefit from the advantages of E&D, including realising individual potential, attracting and retaining the best talent domestically and globally, and driving greater diversity of thinking, discovery and growth.

There is, for instance, under-reporting of mental health difficulties among students and staff, a considerable degree attainment gap among some minority ethnic students (albeit narrowing), and chronic underrepresentation of women and minority ethnic staff at senior levels. That said, there has been a transformation in the understanding of E&D; the case for which is now more widely accepted and appreciated.

ECU’s annual conference in November was a testament to this and to the resolve and vigour with which those in the sector (students, professional and academic staff, and other groups alike) are responding to the challenges that remain. The feedback we received on the conference was overwhelmingly positive and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who contributed to the event’s success and to invite you to read the presentations on our website and view the keynote speeches on our Facebook page.

Coming together

Among other considerations, the merger affords an opportunity to learn from what has been accomplished in new ways to further support institutions and galvanise change.

Through the merger process we can bring together and harmonise all E&D work in the three agencies, as well as further integrating it with work on teaching and learning and on leadership, management and governance to inspire more powerful solutions to intractable problems such as the degree attainment gap (and issues connected with the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework) and further advancing the diversity of leaders across the sector.

In addition, less systemic but equally pressing matters such as trans equality in individual institutions and other issues specific to institutional contexts can be supported in different ways.

Equality in cognate areas such as in research (and the Research Excellence Framework), knowledge exchange (and the Knowledge Exchange Framework), and compliance with the Prevent duty can also be explored more cohesively. This is also the case with work with other constituencies such as colleges and research institutes and with such future partners as UK Research and Innovation and the Office for Students (OfS) in meeting joint equality objectives. Indeed, there are particular interdependences between student and staff equality in terms of access and articulation routes, the estate, community and experience, and role models and the academic pipeline, which will need to be considered as part of the new agency’s future relationships. We can also look to be even more outward-facing in learning from other bodies, sectors and jurisdictions in their successes in promoting equality and diversity.

At a time of change such as this (and specifically one where E&D will be enfolded in amongst other important agendas), there can be a concern that issues of E&D will be overlooked. Universities UK, GuildHE and the Shadow Board that has been charged with overseeing the merger have worked to ensure that this is not the case.

I am particularly encouraged to see that E&D is protected in the governance of the new organisation through an Equality and Diversity Committee to advise the Board on the integration and promotion of such matters in the new organisation.

Finally, I have been appointed to the role of Interim Director for Equality Integration of the merged organisation. This will facilitate alignment and enhancement of the equality, diversity and inclusion work across the three agencies and facilitate development of our over-arching work in this area.

Working together with the sector

Alongside wider consultation with the sector on the development of the new agency, a time of change such as this also presents us with another opportunity to reflect on and revise our own processes, including the equality charter marks.

ECU has always responded to consultation with the HE sector and others on the development of our Athena SWAN Charter and Race Equality Charter. Their requirements are kept under constant review. While the rigour of the charters must be maintained if they are to remain the successful, recognised agents for progress that they have become, we are alive to concerns that they be both properly resourced and proportionate in their demands of colleagues in institutions and departments.

We continue to expand support of the charters to sustain their growth, including through delivering race equality training to complement the Race Equality Charter. And we are investing in an e-submission and assessment system to streamline external and internal administration relating to the charters. We are also commissioning an independent evaluation of the Athena SWAN Charter to build on previous assessments conducted in 2011 and 2013.

Parallel to this, we are setting up a task and finish group composed of sector leaders to review the Athena SWAN Charter processes with a view to reducing the burden of the charter without compromising its integrity and progressive nature, ensuring clarity of expectation, updating handbooks and guides, providing more support to applicants, and communicating how we continue to respond to the needs of different HE institutions and departments.

If you would like to be involved in the task and finish group, please do contact us at Ultimately, though, the decision-making of trained panels (not ECU staff) will continue to also ensure the charters’ integrity.

Facing the future together

Wider, global debates continue to pit identity politics, intersectionality and abstract individualism one against the other. More locally, UK public policy is focused on Brexit and immigration, social mobility, student choice and experience, promoting good campus relations, and the value of HE particularly within the context of higher tuition fees.

However these debates and developments unfold and despite any uncertainty, I am convinced that there is a space to maintain an open, inclusive and outward-looking environment for all students and staff in the sector; indeed this is key to continuing success.

Just as the UK has a strong international reputation for its universities and colleges, so too is it known for its equality law, policy and practice, and indeed the confluence of the two.

In maintaining this environment and in playing to these strengths, I am ambitious for institutions and the UK sector to continue to be destinations of choice for students, staff and funding from around the globe.