What role can universities have in tackling structural inequalities?

The UK’s higher education sector is very attuned to the idea that it is part of the solution for reaching a research and development spending of 2.4 per cent of gross GDP.

It can do this through its research, innovation, partnerships, knowledge exchange and civic engagement (and indeed as employers themselves). And we wouldn’t disagree with this.

Looking within the structure

Yet while there has been a lot of discussion of the balance and effectiveness of R&D expenditure, considering place sensitivity within that, and thought about the role of universities in helping to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, the structural and relational aspects of inequalities within these debates have not been adequately acknowledged. Given the fact that inequalities in higher education mirror those in wider UK society, failing to fully recognise the issue within responses to the 2.4 per cent agenda risks doing more harm than good.

Researchers spend vast amounts of time challenging national measures and providing solutions to key social policy questions. And yet, as universities we are not so good at turning the lens back on ourselves.

There remains a striking lack of diversity within UK higher education and research agendas with only 85 UK black professors within UK higher‑education institutions. The data is even starker when disaggregated by gender – with 25 black female professors working in UK universities and black women making up just 1.9 per cent of UK professors compared to 67.5 per cent who are white men.

Problems at the intersections

Legislating against discrimination and promoting positive action (as, for example, UCL has done) are of course essential parts of addressing this lack of diversity in the sector. But the structural nature of horizontal inequalities – that is, those that apply to entire groups such as women, disabled people, LGBT individuals, and people of colour rather than just at the individual level – mean that such measures are not sufficient.

Once we account for additional complications associated with the intersection of various forms of horizontal inequality, this is clear. The inequalities faced by women of colour are not simply those faced by white women with a racial element added on: they are fundamentally different. Too often that distinction remains under‑appreciated.

Representation in research

In our report ‘Structurally Unsound’ we recognise that tackling structural inequalities and the imbalance in research agendas requires a focus on boosting genuine representation within research (and the same could be said of the policy profession), recognising that policies to address inequality cannot be consigned to HR departments or EDI teams alone, and consideration of how to give up power and privilege “well”.

By failing to fully understand the interconnected, intrinsic nature of structural inequalities in UK society and recognise this within R&D policies, we are tying one hand behind our back when it comes to designing policy aimed at alleviating inequity. To devise appropriate, sophisticated and nuanced policy solutions it is imperative that we take a more rounded view.

As a sector, universities should continue to seek out and meet head-on the challenges at hand. As cornerstones in UK society and the civic anchor of their communities, higher education institutions are ideally placed to take a leading role in efforts to reduce structural inequalities, providing they can grasp this nettle, adopt an intersectional approach, and direct their responses both inwards and outwards so that 2.4 per cent agenda can bring benefit for all.

This article is based on findings from a yearlong ‘Exploring Inequalities’ project. The project was a collaboration between UCL and the Resolution Foundation which sought to explore the nature of – and intersections between – different types of structural inequality and their implications for society.

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