From education to employment

Mind the Gap: The importance of diverse role models in academia

Rod Brazier, Vice Principal – Teaching Excellence and Student Success, St Patrick’s College London

Under-privileged students are at a severe disadvantage

As the student body becomes more diverse we must have an academy which matches it.

Children from underprivileged backgrounds are severely disadvantaged when it comes to succeeding in Higher Education.

For instance:

  • Children from low-income families are less than 50% as likely to go to University as those from ‘better off’ families.
  • Only 1 child in 8 from a low income family will become a high earner themselves.
  • There are huge earnings disparities between those from advantaged backgrounds (who are earning, on average, £30k, 5 years after graduation) and those from disadvantaged backgrounds (£22k, 5 years after graduation).

It is high time that we sought to replicate the diversity of the student population within the demography of academic staff. Students need people to look up to, to associate with and to feel understood by.

They need diverse, relevant role models.

The Academic landscape does not demonstrate equality or diversity

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a university learning and teaching conference. So much innovative best practice was shared, so much ground-breaking research was divulged and so many hard-working individuals spoke passionately about the work they do for their students. But there was a wider issue in play, which I had initially struggled to place my finger on.

Until, that is, a senior member of the leadership team started to lecture on today’s university buzzword; inclusivity.

Correctly, higher and further education institutions are looking to aide social mobility, widen participation and ensure education is genuinely available to all (or at least, most).

Leave Augar aside for the moment – universities and the system still has a long way to go to achieve anything akin to genuine inclusivity, despite the best interests of some institutions.

The alarming attainment gap between white and black students

By way of an example, a metropolitan university based in the north-west, has identified a growing attainment gap between white and black students, which currently stands at 31%.

The university aims to reduce the attainment gap to a mere 6% by 2024/25. Admirable and ambitious.

However, this is where the penny dropped. Sitting in a room of circa 800 academics, it dawned upon me…I was one of 795 with white skin.

Now, I don’t have solid research-based evidence for this statistic, I conducted no survey and I asked no questions of the institution, but I began to consider the impact on the student body – a student body which the institution admitted it was failing, at least in terms of attainment.

The multitude of reasons for altering this stance are commonly espoused in the media today; equality in law, racial diversity, the potential need for positive discrimination – these often feature heavily in recruitment strategies for many workplaces, but for our students there is even more at stake – the importance of having role models – specifically, role models who are like them, who had lives like them and who overcame the same challenges which those students have had to overcome to even walk through the door of a university.

When 7.31% of students are Black, why are only 1.91% of academics?

According to the 2011 Census, the total population of England and Wales was 56.1 million. 87.17% of the population was White. Asian respondents totalled 6.92%, 3.01% described themselves as Black with 1.98% responding as Mixed Race.

However, given that this census is now 8 years old, we can estimate the proportion of the UK population describing itself as from a BEM background to have risen, probably quite significantly.

This therefore begs the question, what do our Higher Education institutions look like, in terms of diversity?

HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) figures show that in 2017/18, only 46% of academic staff were female (against a total female population of nearly 51%).

Equally, if not more, alarming, is the disparity between the diverse mix of student backgrounds against the ‘less’ diverse mix of academic staff.

For instance, whilst 77.7% of UK-domiciled students were ‘White’, 84.1% of academic staff responded as being from that ethnicity. All other ethnic backgrounds had a disproportionately low number of academics in proportion to the number of students from that ethnic background.

For instance, 11.04% of students were Asian, but only 9.73% of academic staff, 3.96% were mixed race (versus 2.1% of academic staff) and the largest gap showed that 7.31% of students were Black, but only 1.91% of academics.

BME students feel marginalised, too.

BME students appear to feel marginalised, too.

In the 2019 HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey, which surveyed over 14,000 full-time undergraduate students, BME students felt they had a less satisfactory experience than white students when it comes to:

  • receiving ‘value for money’
  • ‘learning a lot’,
  • having an ‘experience better than expected’ and
  • being ‘satisfied with access to teaching staff’

The survey goes on to state: ‘ we know from wider sector work that BME students are likely to engage with their course, but these results tell us that they do not get as much (as white students) out of the teaching they receive. In the context of a widely recognised BME attainment gap these differences in perceived teaching quality are a clear concern’.

Compared to white students, BME respondents were also:

  • less likely to be ‘motivated to do their best work’,
  • less likely to find teachers to be ‘helpful and supportive’ and
  • less likely to have ‘course goals and requirements clearly explained to them’.

One conclusion drawn from the study highlights the controversy attached to the attributing of ‘academic staff make-up’ to the BME attainment gap.

However, the suggestion that staff diversity should reflect the changing demographic of the student body is something that must now be taken seriously by institutions.

HE needs a diverse workforce for a holistic, student-centred approach

Diversity of the workforce within educational institutions – especially within teaching staff – ought to replicate the student population. I realise that I say that as a white male, so the irony is not lost on me, but the necessity to recruit not only the best talent, but the right talent for a given student body is one that I (and I hope all recruiters) will look to hold in high regard.

Over the past 18 months at St Patrick’s College a recruitment drive has taken place to ensure a fit for purpose leadership team is in place. 66% of that leadership team are female (10 from 15) whilst 33% are BEM (5 from 15).

Within the numbers recruited for new academic positions (many of whom are Experiential Teaching Practitioners), 66% are female (18 from 27) whilst 48% are BEM (13 from 27).

Now, whilst the geographical advantages of recruiting BEM staff in inner-city London are obvious, that does not ameliorate the responsibility of certain universities to reconsider their approach – both to diversify their workforce (and all the advantages that brings; cultural gains, enhanced problem-solving, boosting morale and increasing creativity) and to become more student-centred.

Universities and colleges need to innovate to improve the situation.

Just as several high-profile companies in the UK have played down the importance of the CV and are seeking to recruit people who ‘best fit’ the role and the organisation, perhaps HE institutions should do the same.

This would mean not discounting people from a recruitment process based merely on the University in which they studied, or having unrealistic bars when it comes to academic qualifications, but rather looking at novel recruitment methods such as assessment centres and personality profiling.

I’m not advocating for a dumbing-down of academic rigour within academic recruitment, but would like to see a range of diverse recruitment methods which seek out diverse skills for a diverse role.

Employers must seek out diverse role models for a diverse student body

The effect of having a teacher who better and more truly understands the cultural norms of their student can create a lasting impact that goes beyond mere knowledge.

We all have role models – people we look up to. I wonder how many of them do we deem to be ‘like’ us?

It’s important that educational recruiters are careful to ensure that a diversity of role models are available for their students.

We really must all mind that gap.

Rod Brazier, Vice Principal – Teaching Excellence and Student Success, St Patrick’s College London

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