Institutional CommitmentContinuous Improvement

Taking a Strategic Approach to Tackling Racial Inequality in UK Universities

Despite recent efforts, UK universities are still lagging in their response to racial inequality. A holistic institutional strategy backed by strong leadership commitment and resources is required. Critically, those who experience racial discrimination should be at the core of any anti-racism policy.
Written by Amatey Doku

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protests spread around the world to draw attention to racial discrimination and the failure of many societies to address it. It was not long before companies, organisations and other institutions were in the spotlight, with the role that they play in perpetuating structural inequality brought into sharp focus. The higher education sector was no exception. When many universities did respond with statements or with posting the “black square”, there was often a backlash online, with critics saying that these statements did not go far enough, and that real action was missing. Since then, universities have been under increased social, political and regulatory pressure to deal with these inequalities. The higher education institutions in the UK who are making genuine progress have recognised that the only way to tackle these entrenched structural inequalities is to make it a strategic priority for the institution.

Racial Inequalities for Staff and Students

There are racial inequalities for students in higher education across the student lifecycle. Students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are less likely to be awarded a 1st or 2:1 grade than white students. There is currently a 13% gap for BAME students as a whole and the biggest gap is between white students and black students (22%). BAME students have higher non-continuation rates; the black student dropout rate is almost 1.5 times higher the rate of white students. BAME students have worse graduate outcomes than white students; there is 9% gap between white students in full time employment after graduating (62% gap) and Black students (53% gap) . And BAME students are less likely to progress to further study than white students; there is a 10% increase in the percentage of white undergraduates pursuing postgraduate research study but a 50% decrease in progression for black students.

There are also racial disparities in the student experience. A quarter of students from an ethnic minority background reported receiving racial harassment since starting their course. When consulted, BAME students highlight factors that exacerbate these inequalities, including, a Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy, lack of culturally competent support services, and inadequate reporting mechanisms and remedies for tackling racism.

University staff from minoritised backgrounds frequently experience racial stereotyping and microaggressions, and are poorly represented throughout the academy, particularly in senior positions. In 2016-17 only 7.5% of professors were BAME men, and 2.1% BAME women. There are also inequalities within the overall ‘BAME’ category; for example, less than 1% of professors are black. The “Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged” report by the EHRC highlighted several areas where staff of colour experience racism in a higher education context. Staff in the report described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race and more than a quarter of staff consulted said they experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes. The report found that 3 in 20 staff said racial harassment had caused them to leave their jobs.

The Impetus for Change and Key Questions

Racial inequalities have remained stubborn for a long time but demands for change have increased in recent years. Universities in the UK have had regulatory and legal requirements to tackle racial inequalities for some time. The Race Relations Amendment Act was introduced in 2000 and from 2002, higher education providers have been required to develop race equality policies and action plans. The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination based on protected characteristics (including race) and the 2011 Public Sector Equality Duty requires institutions to demonstrate compliance. Despite this, many of the inequalities highlighted above have persisted.

More recently, issues of race and racism have been brought to the fore by student activists and campaigns. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign (originating in the University of Cape Town in South Africa) re-introduced the concept of “decolonising” into the mainstream of higher education discourse. Following on from this, numerous reports have given the sector clear steps on tackling racial harassment in higher education. In relation to racial disparities in attainment, reports including #ClosingTheGap , a collaboration between Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) highlighted issues of the BAME attainment gap and gave clear recommendations for action. Alongside this, the regulator for higher education in England, the Office for Students, has introduced regulation requiring universities to commit to closing BAME attainment gaps for students as part of their Access and Participation Plans. More broadly, Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter Mark requires universities to set out clear action plans for tackling their racial inequalities for both students and staff. In late 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published “Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged”, outlining key recommendations for the sector to tackle racial harassment. UUK responded in November 2020 with the “Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education” report, which sets out further recommendations, including engaging directly with staff with lived experience of racial harassment, developing and introducing reporting systems for racial harassment and reviewing current policies and procedures to develop institution-wide strategies.

The global Black Lives Matter movement has brought sharper focus to these issues, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many testimonials were published online recounted experiences of racism in universities and many institutions responded by issuing statements stating their commitment to tackle racial inequalities. This social, political and regulatory context presents means that allowing these inequalities to persist is now out of the question but this confronts universities with some challenging questions. What does success look like and how do we measure it? Where is the balance between targeted activity and support for all? How do we appropriately engage those who experience racism in our universities without requiring them to do all the work to fix the problems? What are the right accountability and governance structures needed to drive this work?

How do we appropriately engage those who experience racism in our universities without requiring them to do all the work to fix the problems?

Practical Steps to Drive Strategic Change

Tackling the racial inequalities that have highlighted above will not be easy but the only chance that universities have to make progress in tackling them is to make advancing race equity an organisation wide strategic priority.

There are a number of key approaches which are important to consider:

  • Take a whole institution approach to tackling racism. A whole institution approach requires that the team or individuals driving race equality are able to influence change in all parts of the institution. The factors driving these inequalities are so complex and varied that coordinated efforts right across the organisation are required. Many institutions are moving their equality and diversity functions out of HR reporting directly to the Vice Chancellors office for this very reason.

  • Show leadership and create accountability for progress. Leadership and accountability are critical for success. The clear commitment from senior leaders that tackling these inequalities and creating an inclusive culture and environment for racially minoritized groups can go a long way to restoring trust. But those leadership commitments must be followed up with concrete actions and progress in reducing inequalities. Institutions need clear strategies and action plans, with the accountabilities set out clearly. Some universities have introduced advancing equality and diversity outcomes into performance management frameworks for managers and senior leaders, which creates further accountability.

  • Resource race equity efforts effectively over a sustained period. As the unequal outcomes and experiences highlighted above demonstrate, many of the inequalities are entrenched and will require resource over a period of time to address them. Treating the challenge as a strategic priority must also be accompanied by the appropriate resources to support organisational change, leadership development and the development of individual and organisational capabilities to tackle race inequalities. Failure to provide the necessary resources will likely lead to limited progress and the accusation that only lip service is being paid to advancing race equality.

  • Appropriately centre the voices of those who experience racism in the centre of all interventions. It is essential that the voices of those who experience racism are at the heart of all actions to tackle race inequality. Failing to do so will mean that universities may be prioritising the wrong areas, and that will ultimately erode trust with affected communities. However, it is important that this is done appropriately and sensitively, mindful of the additional labour put on staff and students of colour to tackle these inequalities. Where black and minoritized staff and students are engaged, their time should be effectively accounted for (i.e. in workplans in the case of full time staff) or compensated.

      Some universities are making meaningful progress in this area. Examples of this are set out in London Metropolitan University’s Race Equity Strategic Plan, University of the Arts London’s Anti-racism action plan and De Montfort University’s Decolonising DMU initiative. However, there’s still a long way to go and only when we see a sustained shift in the well documented unequal outcomes and experiences for black and minoritized staff and students will we know that progress is being made.


      Coughlan, S. (2021, January 19). Only 1% of UK university professors are black. BBC News.

      Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2019, October). Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged.

      Otobo, O. (2020, November). UK Universities’ Response to Black Lives Matter. Halpin.

      Petrie, K., & N, K. (2017, July 19). On course for success? Student retention at university. Social Market Foundation.

      What are HE students’ progression rates and qualifications? (n.d.). HESA. Retrieved May 1, 2021, from

      Who’s studying in HE? (n.d.). HESA. Retrieved May 1, 2021, from

      Universities UK. (2020, November). Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education.

      Universities UK & National Union of Students. (2019, May). Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment at UK Universities: #ClosingTheGap. Universities UK.

      Universities UK calls for urgent action on racial harassment in higher education. (2020, November 24). Universities UK.

  • Keywords

    racial inequality higher education UK

    About the author

    Amatey Doku
    Consultant, Nous Group (UK)

    Amatey Doku is a consultant at Nous Group, an international consulting firm with expertise in higher education. He has supported a range of projects in the UK higher education sector, including those relating to student experience, university strategy and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. Prior to joining Nous, Amatey was Vice-President Higher Education at the National Union of Students (UK) and UK representative to the European Students’ Union.

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