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Universities: BAME Women in Leadership Positions

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 7 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to increase the number of black and minority ethnic women in leadership positions in Russell group universities in England.

My Lords, equality and diversity in higher education is a priority for this Government. On 11 October 2018, the Prime Minister set out her expectation that more must be done to create a workforce representative of British society today. As part of the race disparity audit, the Government have asked higher education providers to tackle ethnic disparities in their workforce, using tools such as the race equality charter and the race at work charter.

I thank the noble Viscount for that very helpful reply and I unequivocally uphold university autonomy and independence. He knows, however, that the latest data shows that of 19,000 UK university professors, only 25 are black women. This is reflected across senior roles in the Russell group. Does he accept that institutions receiving those public funds must go beyond the race equality charter and uphold race equality law? In the absence of a regulator for this aspect of HE, will he look at collaborating with the Higher Education Funding Councils to see whether we can get more accurate data on what is holding back recruitment, retention and promotion in this sector?

I start by applauding the work that the noble Baroness continues to do in this field. I acknowledge that the figures are of concern; that is why, in addition to the October announcement I just mentioned, on 1 February the Government announced measures to tackle ethnic disparities in higher education, specifically in recruitment and progression opportunities for ethnic minority academics. The noble Baroness may know that Karen Blackett is the Government’s race at work champion. She will be working at institutions, including universities, to address inequality by taking practical steps, such as introducing apprenticeships and offering mentorships.

Does my noble friend agree that universities are independent institutions and that that independence is an important ingredient in creating the prestige that British universities enjoy globally? Consequently, does he agree that universities should not have a responsibility to deploy effective recruitment procedures?

My Lords, there is a balance. I thank my noble friend for making that point because this House took through autonomy for institutions during the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act, so that autonomy is important. On the other hand, the Office for Students has a statutory duty to protect the academic freedom of English higher education providers, so while it has its duty to put some pressure on the universities, equally, universities must be allowed to make decisions themselves as to who they employ and how much they are paid.

My Lords, the dearth of black, Asian and minority ethnic people, particularly women, in senior positions in Russell group universities, is shocking but not surprising. Surely it a symptom of so few BAME students having been to those universities over the years; academics who were themselves at Russell group universities tend to dominate senior positions there. They should adopt appointments policies that deal with underrepresentation in the short term. I welcome the Minister referring this matter to Karen Blackett to look at, but have attempts by leading universities to widen student participation not proved inadequate? Should the Minister now advise the Office for Students, as the regulator, to put greater pressure on Russell group universities to make sure that their admissions policies are fit for purpose?

The Question is mainly focused on staff and the workforce. There is more to be done to create a workforce that represents British society today, particularly in universities. It is important that universities, as the noble Lord alluded to, set up a pipeline to encourage BME students to come in, go on to do research and then become academics. That is a genuine focus of this Government.

My Lords, is it not in the interests of universities to ensure they are attractive to a range of young people who have the ability to benefit from universities, irrespective of their colour, background or religion? Therefore, is it not in the interests of universities to ensure that they are seen as a welcoming place for people of a different colour or background, and make sure they have a range of academic staff who reflect that range of interests?

The noble Lord makes a good point. It is important that, wherever universities are based, they reflect the area they are in and, equally, adopt the policies that the noble Lord has mentioned. There is more work to be done and universities know this. Pressure is being put on them by the Office for Students.

My Lords, the Russell group is referred to in the Question and is frequently the object of discussion in higher education policy generally, and much referred to by the Government as well. Can the Minister tell the House what characteristics are required for universities to be members of the Russell group? I understand that it is a self-selected group, but maybe I am wrong. Could he also explain how the views of the Russell group differ from those of other groupings of universities in the sector?

It is a good question from the noble Lord. I asked that very question, about what the definitions are for those universities that are part of the Russell group and for the rest of the universities in the UK—and there is not one. I acknowledge, however, the point the House has made: of the total academic staff at Russell group universities for 2017 to 2018, 11% were male professors and 3% were female professors. There is more work to be done to put pressure on the Russell group universities.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former Russell group university teacher. Is the problem, particularly for women and women from ethnic minorities, not undergraduate recruitment, but getting through the graduate student and post-doc stage? Would the Government, in collaboration with HEFCE, look at adequate funding for people through that difficult process, as well as informal discrimination against young women as opposed to young men, which I certainly saw as a graduate student supervisor from time to time?

The noble Lord is right. It is not so much for HEFCE now, but there should be collaboration between the Office for Students, Universities UK, UCU and other bodies, working together to make progress in this area.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chancellor of a non-Russell group university. Further to my noble friend’s point, is there a difference between the people employed within the non-Russell group and those in the Russell group? Is there actually a difference or is this a problem across all universities?

I think it is a problem across all universities. There are figures that I could spend ages going into, but it is a problem across all universities and more work needs to be done, as I have said.