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Transforming the higher education culture

Published: 18/11/2014

Focused support for staff and students needed to transform higher education into a more inclusive culture

Older students, disabled staff and students, women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds need more focused support from their universities, according to our analysis of the latest staff and student equality statistics, published today in Equality in HE: statistical report 2014.

Our annual report presents national equality data on the age, disability, ethnicity and gender of staff and students in HE in 2012/13. It aims to focus universities’ attention on where action is needed.

The report was launched today during ECU’s national conference Achieving equality: transforming the HE sector, to an audience of over 200 delegates from across higher education.

David Ruebain, chief executive of ECU, said:

‘This year the data shows us that the sector is managing to reduce the ethnicity degree attainment gap, is providing a more inclusive and attractive environment for greater numbers of disabled students, and numbers of BME and female senior staff are slowly increasing.

However, universities need to be focussing on specific areas to take action if we are going to transform the culture of HE into one that is fair, inclusive, and offers the same chances to everyone.

The changes we need to make for female and BME staff and students are well researched and we continue to take action to actively make these changes. Additionally, we must continue to learn and address emergent challenges highlighted by the data, such as the different support needs of students from different age groups.’

Key findings

Age matters >

Institutions need to focus on supporting the retention and achievement of older students, for example how they support students with multiple commitments or those whose courses have high levels of distance learning:

  • Younger students are more likely to qualify; UK-domiciled full-time first degree entrants aged 21 and under had both the highest rates of qualifying or continuing in their studies (92.0%) and rates of transfer (2.0%) among the age groups.
  • A higher proportion of full-time first degree qualifiers aged 21 and under achieved a first/2:1 than first degree qualifiers in older age groups.
  • The ethnicity degree attainment gap (the difference between white qualifiers achieving a first/2:1 and qualifiers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds) was lowest for first degree qualifiers aged 21 and under (7.5% gap) and highest for those aged 36 and over (24.3%).

However, younger students have their own support needs:

  • 77.0% of students who disclosed a social communication/autistic spectrum disorder and 63.4% with a specific learning difficulty were aged 21 and under.

Age is also an issue in retaining staff, not just in individual institutions, but in higher education as a sector:

  • Leaving rates were highest among academic staff aged 30 and under. 33.9% left their institution between 2011/12 and 2012/13, compared with 11.6% of those aged 41-50.
  • 23.5% of leavers in this age group moved to another UK HEI. However, 21.5% left the HE sector for the private sector, and 27.8% were not in regular employment.
  • For staff aged 25 and under, the majority of academic staff were women. For every age group after this, the majority were men.
Changing disability support >

Universities are doing a lot of good work in encouraging disabled students to enter higher education, and disclose a disability.

  • The proportion of all students who disclosed as disabled increased from 5.4% in 2003/04 to 9.5% in 2012/13. Proportions of students disclosing ranged from 5.3% of those studying business and administrative studies to 16.7% of those studying creative arts and design.

However, staff disclosure rates are much lower, despite some improvement in the figures.

  • According to ODI figures from the Family Resources Survey 2010/11, 16% of working age adults are disabled. But only 3.4% of academic staff and 4.5% of professional and support staff disclosed as disabled in 2012/13. Only 2.1% of deputy/pro vice-chancellors have disclosed as disabled.

Support for disabled staff may therefore be underresourced and people may not be getting appropriate support and adjustments, or making use of Access to Work funding.

The profile of disabled students has changed, with implications for the type of support and adjustments that universities provide.

  • Since 2007/08 the proportion of disabled students disclosing a mental health condition has increased from 5.9% to 11.1% in 2012/13 (from 0.4% to 1.1% of the entire student population).
  • In the same period the proportion of disabled students disclosing a social communication or autistic spectrum disorder also increased from 0.9% to 2.3%

The support and adjustments that universities provide is having a positive effect on outcomes.

  • Compared with 2011/12, the proportion of disabled first degree qualifiers who received a first/2:1 increased from 63.9% to 66.0%. A higher proportion of disabled first degree qualifiers who received disabled students’ allowance (DSA) obtained a first/2:1 (66.9%) than disabled students who did not receive DSA (65.3%).
More transformative work to be done >


Some black and minority ethnic students are more likely to leave before the end of their course, are receiving lower degrees, and have lower rates of employment after qualifying.

  • Between academic years 2011/12 and 2012/13, 6.4% of white full-time first degree students left higher education without completing their course. 10.8% of black: Caribbean students and 10.7% of students from ‘other black’ background left HE. In contrast, only 5.0% of Asian: Indian and 5.3% of Chinese students dropped out.
  • The ethnicity degree attainment gap has decreased from a peak of 18.8% in 2005/06 to 16.1% in 2012/13, and is at its lowest since 2003/04. However, there still remains a significant gap – particularly between white qualifiers and black: African (26.8% gap) and black: Caribbean qualifiers (24.5%).
  • Six months after qualifying, 10.8% of black and minority ethnic students were unemployed, compared with 5.2% of white graduates.

There has been little progress for staff either. For example, there continues to be a disparity at senior management and professor levels:

  • Only 3.6% of senior managers were BME (despite comprising 8.0% of all academic staff). Only 0.4% of senior managers were black.
  • 92.9% of professors were white, meaning only 7.1% were BME. Again, the difference is particularly noticeable for black staff; only 0.4% of professors were black.
  • Among UK-national academic staff, white men accounted for 69.8% of senior managers, though they made up only 50.5% of academics who were not senior managers. 26.6% of UK-national senior managers were white women, 2.9% were BME men and 0.7% were BME women.

It is this continued lack of progress that ECU’s trial race equality charter mark is seeking to address. Thirty universities have signed up to the charter in the trial, showing their commitment to making a difference for race equality.


  • There continue to be low proportions of women studying engineering and technology, despite initiatives to increase numbers in these subjects. Only 15.8% of engineering and technology students were women.
  • Male students were least represented in subjects allied to medicine, where they made up only 20.6% of students studying these areas.
  • Women continued to be underrepresented at senior levels. 78.3% of professors, 72.1% of senior managers and 79.9% of vice-chancellors/principals were men.