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Ethnic representation in UK higher education

David Kernohan looks at the proportion of non-white academic staff and UK domiciled students in each UK higher education provider
This article is more than 1 year old

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe.

As a student, when first you sat down in a lecture theatre did the person behind the podium look anything like you?

If you have a non-white ethnicity, the chances are they did not. One of my very favourite articles on Wonkhe is by my colleague, Arthi Nachiappan. She eloquently expresses how this felt:

I thought back to my first year of my undergraduate degree to figure out how many of the staff that taught me were of an ethnic minority background the other day – there was one, an Indian PhD student who taught one of my economics seminars. The colleague who asked me about it was shocked that my experience in higher education had only involved being taught by one tutor of an ethnic minority but what struck me about the situation was that I hadn’t really expected there to be any.

I didn’t go to university expecting any level of representation of ethnic minorities among the staff that taught me, which says a lot about the communicative function that representation of ethnic minorities can have on prospective and current students.

The perception of higher education as an enterprise run by white people is a hard one to shift – even if the idea that is run for white people is hopefully now in the past. Talent, character, and the capacity for intellectual work is not correlated with skin colour or family background – HE should be a place where everyone should be supported to reach their potential.

But the data suggests that, though student participation is becoming more representative of the wider population, the tutor that welcomes a diverse student body on their first day is still likely to be white.

Proportional representation

This year’s open data release from HESA shows the proportion of the UK domiciled student body that is non-white (coded as Black, Asian, Mixed, or Other ethnicity) against the proportion of the academic staff body (excluding atypical contracts) that is non-white. Plotting by institution gives us an insight into the on-campus experience.

[Full screen]

For the main plot, I’ve used colour intensity to flag the total number of academic staff, and the size of the dot to flag the total number of students. Providers on the right of the line have a higher proportion of non-white students than staff and for providers on the left of the line, it is the other way round.

The map plot uses two colours to show the difference between these proportions – darker red dots means a higher proportion of non-white students than staff, darker blue is the other way round. I’ve also included this difference on a table in the third tab, but you can sort this table by the proportion of non-white students or staff as well.

Uncomfortable findings

Ten institutions had no non-white academic staff at all in 2017-18. Primarily small, specialist arts colleges – all of these had less than 200 staff in total.

Overall in the UK, around 13% of residents were non-white at the time of the 2011 census. Sixty-seven providers had a non-white proportion of their UK domiciled student population lower than this in 2017-18. Ninety-eight providers had a non-white proportion of their academic staff population lower than this in 2017-18.

There is some evidence of institutions addressing these findings – Oxford, notably, has a roughly equivalent proportion of non-white academic staff and students, both at around 16.4%. Prestigious institutions like Oxford have often been called out for being unrepresentative, but on this measure at least they are among those leading the way.

2 responses to “Ethnic representation in UK higher education

  1. Back in October Wonkhe ran an article about the term ‘non-academic’ being othering and divisive, yet here we are talking about ‘non-white’ people?

    Shifting the perception of white-run HE will involve collectively dismantling our assumption that whiteness is the norm. There might not be a perfect term that represents all Black, Asian, Mixed and Other people, but we can do better than non-white.

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