Don’t ask, don’t get- improving diversity data for staff and students

The nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010

  • age
  • sex
  • race
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity

The standard of diversity data that HEFCE receives from institutions via the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is inconsistent across the protected characteristics of the Equality Act.

Although we have a clear picture of the equality landscape when it comes to the characteristics that institutions are obliged to return (age, sex, race and disability), coverage for others is patchy.

This is a big obstacle to equality policy development because we don’t know what type of inequalities may or may not exist. For example, we don’t know if LGBTIQ students are fairly represented across the sector, or whether staff holding particular religious beliefs face difficulties in career progression.

In an effort to broaden the evidence base beyond the compulsory return of age, sex, race and disability data, in 2012-13, HESA introduced non-compulsory submission of three other protected characteristics: sexual orientation, religion and belief, and gender reassignment.

However, after three years of collection, data coverage for staff and student populations remains too low to draw meaningful conclusions about representation across the sector, as shown below.

The known status of staff and students with non-compulsory characteristics remains low

Staff Students
2013-14 2014-15 2013-14 2014-15
Sexual orientation 30% 38% 32% 42%
Gender reassignment 20% 24% 29% 39%
Religion and belief 31% 40% 34% 44%

An uneven picture

Beyond the sector-wide level of disclosure, the data submitted paint an uneven picture.

First, they hide the fact that the proportion of sexual orientation, gender reassignment and religion and belief data for staff and students returned varies considerably between institutions, as shown in figures 1 and 2.

This suggests that a significant proportion of the sector is not asking staff and students for this data.

Significantly more institutions return no data on staff diversity

Significantly more institutions return no data on staff diversity

Significantly more institutions return no data on student diversity

Significantly more institutions return no data on student diversity

Second, certain institutions have returned data that could, at best, be described as implausible.

In the most recent staff and student datasets, there are several examples of highly improbable returns, such as two institutions who reported that 100 per cent of their students held the same religion or belief.

Similarly, ten institutions reported that every single student had a different gender identity from that assigned at birth.

How to improve the data

So how can we improve this data to a point where they can be used for policymaking?

First, more should be done to encourage staff and students to disclose their protected characteristics. Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has published guidance to advise institutions on encouraging disclosure of equality information by staff and students. It highlights several key points, including:

  • Explaining clearly why equality information is collected. To this end, Stonewall has produced a useful 10 point guide for employees and service users to explain in simple terms why public authorities need to collect equality information.
  • Fostering an open culture in which staff and students have no concerns about disclosing equality information. ECU offers guidance on promoting good relations on campus to help with this.
  • Ensuring that diversity questionnaires are phrased simply and neutrally. ECU also provides a list of suggested questions and answers that cover all the protected characteristics.

Second, institutions need to ensure that they have robust processes in place for collecting and analysing the data.

Most crucially, the staff handling the data need to understand what they are collecting and why.

Targeted equality and diversity training for these staff would equip them with the skills to undertake effective internal equality analysis and avoid the type of data quality errors that are evident in the current datasets.

In order to understand the reality for LGBTIQ staff and students in higher education, this data is essential.

The same goes for understanding the representation of different religious groups across the sector. Through qualitative research, such as ECU’s reports on staff and student experiences in relation to religion and belief and trans equality, we have some insight into the lived experiences of these equality groups. However, quantitative data are an essential complement in order to plan policy responses that can improve provision and conditions for minority groups.

In HEFCE’s newly published Equality and Diversity Statement and Objectives, we commit to continuing to analyse higher education data to highlight equality challenges across the sector.

We hope that staff and student data on sexual orientation, gender reassignment and religion and belief will soon reach a standard that will enable us to include these characteristics in these analyses.