This collection of case studies provides a rich picture of activities across a range of staff and student issues, including challenges which require a whole-institutional approach such as how to tackle gender based violence, and how to reduce the gender pay gap. Many of the initiatives here also involved whole community approaches, working together with external agencies or networks to acknowledge the role – and impact – higher education institutions can have in their local areas.
The balancing act
One of the first things that struck us in reviewing the submissions was that some groups weren’t featuring strongly in the submissions received. There were noticeably very few submissions specifically focussing on the equality, diversity or inclusivity challenges related to gender identity (4 per cent) and sexual orientation (5.6 per cent), and only a handful relating to age or religion and belief (1.6 per cent in total).
There was more coverage of disability (14.5 per cent) and race (12.9 per cent). Nearly a fifth of submissions focussed on gender.
At Equalities Challenge Unit (ECU) we are very aware from our work with the sector that most institutions have policies and practices in place to protect all these groups, as part of the requirements of the public sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010.
But the lack of focus of specific initiatives here should perhaps provoke some reflection: never more so perhaps than when the number of older students making undergraduate applications is falling, and when questions of how we provide an environment which is inclusive for students of all religions – and for students of no religion – are as challenging as ever. We hope that ECU’s current call for evidence on work around religion and belief will provide another opportunity for the sector to consider its engagement with this equality area.
Keep it local
For those protected characteristics where institutions are focusing their attentions, the case studies in this report show that challenging issues can be tackled with creativity and with commitment.
Creativity is key, as these initiatives, programmes and strategies are not offered as ‘off the shelf’ solutions. It is right and necessary that institutions look to understand inequalities, differential needs, and under-representation in their own specific contexts.
However, consistency of approach could be more beneficial when it comes to embedding measures for success. It was clear in our review that detailed evaluations of impact (based on qualitative and quantitative data analysis) were often lacking.
Strong evaluative frameworks will be of great importance in ensuring that any initiatives can be improved for maximum effect – all things being equal – but will prove particularly important for understanding long-term impact on the ever-changing challenges of the sector. As we weather the decline in part-time students, fees and funding changes (including the changes to Disabled Students’ Allowance), black and minority ethnic academic flight or the great unknown of Brexit, those at the helm of equality and diversity strategies will need to react quickly to a changing academy.
With the future in mind, as well as presenting and discussing a range of case studies, our report today identifies 10 key features of sector-leading practice which we hope will provide a strong framework for new and ongoing equality and diversity work.
We thank all those in the sector who contributed their work to this project, and look forward to seeing many of these projects develop further.