Whether you are a Minister of State, a journalist in the specialist press, or a senior member of academic staff, it is never too late to gain a deeper understanding of the way HESA data is presented.
What seems clear from a table becomes far murkier when you dig in to the numbers and what they represent.
The joy of rounding
To start with, I should clarify how HESA rounding works. To avoid inadvertently revealing personal data, counts of people in public open data are rounded to the nearest multiple of five. Any number lower than 2.5 is rounded to zero.
So we know that in the 2014/15 academic year there were between 0 and 2 Black senior academics in UK HE – a state of affairs that continued until 2016/17. At that point there were between 3 and 5 Black senior academics in the UK… which continued until 2018/19 when the number once again dropped below 3.
As Chris Skidmore put it: “It is unacceptable that the number of black academic staff in senior positions has fallen, as this does not represent our British society. Universities need to make more progress and I urge all vice-chancellors to address the barriers that are holding back black and ethnic minority staff from senior positions.”
He actually worded that fairly well – others in and around the sector went for the shocking (if less accurate) “no Black senior academics” framing.
The HESA data – to be clear – highlights worryingly low numbers, and does not represent the diversity of students, staff, or wider UK populations. The issue can and should be addressed in hiring and promotion practices. But we need to be clear what we are talking about – so what is a “senior” academic – or, more correctly, a “manager, director, or senior official on an academic contract”?
Fun with data definitions
- Head of institution (A0)
- Deputy head of institution, pro vice-chancellor (B0)
- Head/director of major academic area (dean of faculty, where faculty has over 100 staff or similar)
It does not include a head of school/department (D1 where the department is between 50 and 100 staff, D2 for below 50), a head of a research group (E1) or your standard professor (F1). Lots of academics who are not a “senior” manager in this definition have significant budgetary or staff management responsibilities. This line is drawn at a fairly arbitrary place, and the size constraints mean similar roles at different providers may be classified differently.
And many staff refuse to record their ethnicity – it is not compulsory to provide this information, many choose not to for their own reasons and would be captured under “unknown”. Others may choose to lie.
But that’s not confusing enough – so let us consider what an academic actually is. According to HESA, the definition is “professionals holding a contract for planning, directing and undertaking academic teaching and research within HE providers”. We also need to bear in mind my favourite HESA definition ever, which concerns academic employment function – an academic can have a contract that includes “teaching only”, “research only”, “teaching and research”, or “neither teaching or research”.
It all becomes unclear
What I’m getting at here is a considerable uncertainty as to the ways in which different providers assign status to different roles. There is guidance, but these are not hard and fast rules. A role that would appear as academic for a large pre-92 university may appear as non-academic for an alternative provider.
So where does this leave Chris Skidmore (and the many journalists that have gone along with the ministerial line)? He’s right to be concerned about the poor representation of Black academics at the top of our academic providers, and he’s right that the situation needs to be improved.
He should welcome the (slight) progress represented in the growth in Black academic staff over five years, both in real and proportional terms, although there is still clearly more that needs to be done. Likewise the steady but notable growth in Black senior managers not on academic contracts.
But it is difficult to see much significance in the number of Black academic senior managers (whatever any of these terms are deemed to mean) moving between three and two. People are allowed to retire, after all.