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Tackling underrepresentation of ‘protected’ student groups: sector learning

03 Feb 2020 | Jess Moody Jess Moody, Senior Adviser at Advance HE, reflects on learnings from the Increasing Diversity project as the sector considers more ‘ambitious’ responses to tackling underrepresentation.

Everyone has their ‘threshold concept’ moment when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Maybe it’s when you understand the difference between ‘representation’ and ‘belonging’ – you know the one: “it’s not about being invited to the party, it’s being asked to dance” (or better yet, have control of the playlist)? Maybe it’s finally seeing the huge iceberg beneath the surface of higher education that is the ‘hidden curriculum’. Maybe it’s the second some of us finally ‘get’ the concept of white privilege.

For me, one of the key moments was earlier on in my career when the inimitable Dan Shaffer (then of SPA - Supporting Professionalism in Admissions) patiently explained to a bunch of student admissions types that ‘treating everyone fairly may not always mean treating everyone the same’. This – in the early post-Schwartz review years, when everyone was striving to improve consistency of decision making and ‘fair admissions’ was about ‘equal opportunities’ for access –  was a bit of a curve-ball.

Of course now as a sector, we’re increasingly aware of the importance of equity of outcome: of looking at seemingly neutral and ‘fair’ processes and opportunities, examining who they benefit and who they do not, and thinking about our role in creating - and responding to - structural inequities (Bhopal 2017; Boliver 2018 etc). Indeed, that is the main premise of the self-assessment process in Advance HE Equality Charters.


Positive Action: are we there yet?

The response is the bit we are still somewhat figuring out, though we should go armed with decades of scholarship, a new ‘What Works’ centre (TASO), and an increasing mandate for ‘ambitious’ new approaches (Millward 2019).

And yet.

We find there is still greater comfort in committing to making structures ‘more inclusive’ over the long term, and anxiety about taking more immediate action to redress underrepresentation by providing targeted actions for specific groups (additionally or alternatively to inclusive changes).  This anxiety increases when the groups who are underrepresented are articulated through protected characteristics. This is because for the most part, a measure articulated as a benefit for one group (for example, a particular gender or ethnic group or combination) comes with the immediate challenge (perceived or otherwise) of treating other groups differently or less favourably.

However, globally many jurisdictions provide legal frameworks and policy incentives for organisations to do just that: recognising that ultimately, equity of outcomes is the primary aim, and sometimes we just need to get where we’re going quicker. In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 (for Scotland, England, and Wales) provides specific tools to do this under the ‘positive action’ provisions (there are two: a ‘general’ provision under s.158 which will be widely applicable to student access and participation work; and s.159 which relates to employment, and is more restrictive).

We know, however, that in the UK there is still mixed levels of confidence in both understanding positive action as a tool, and confidence in using it (Stevenson et al 2009; Davies 2019).


The ‘Increasing Diversity’ programme

So, in 2016 Equality Challenge Unit (now Advance HE) together with Professor Liz Thomas started to work with teams across a range of institutions in England and Wales, following a (then extended) Scottish Funding Council (SFC) programme in Scotland Attracting Diversity (Steven & Thomas 2019). Our collaboration was called Increasing Diversity: Tackling underrepresentation of protected groups in higher education.

This programme of work took place over a ‘threshold’ time itself: 2016-2018 saw the birth of the Office for Students and the development of the new approach to Access and Participation in England; the concurrent running of the Scottish Attracting Diversity programme against a backdrop of Gender Action Plans; Brexit; the demographic shift in applicant numbers; and an uneven awareness amongst participants of the transformative potential of decolonisation (Bhambra et al 2018). 

Not everything went according to plan. Not everything went according to the timeline. But there were a range of successes, some expected and some surprising: enhancements in thinking, staff development, student engagement; new conversations, and yes, practical implementations of process changes, scholarships, and curricula.

What Professor Thomas and I would like to share with the sector in our final report and case studies is some honest learning, and very practical recommendations for anyone about to embark on targeted work for specific protected groups within their institution, particularly if new to this type of work.


Courageous conversations?

Over such a precarious period, we are grateful to the project teams for their individual labour and enthusiasm and to the students who participated in their local projects (either as team members, research participants, or researchers themselves); and we wish them well with their ongoing work.

We are also thankful to all the work of our colleagues and the sector in Scotland (generously funded by the SFC), for their foregrounding work through Attracting Diversity.

It is appropriate then that as a sector we all join together on 16-18 March at the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2021, to continue these tricky conversations. We invite you to share your experiences of positive action measures – what worked, what didn’t, and what you don’t know…yet.

We hope you’ll join us. Maybe you’ll have your own threshold moment: or even help someone else with theirs.

Find out more about the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Conference 2021 and book your place.

Download Increasing Diversity: Tackling underrepresentation of protected groups in higher education

We are also running a series of workshops in 2021 focused on equality, diversity and inclusivity to support practitioners, managers and leaders within HE institutions across the UK. Find out more





Cite this blog as: Moody, J (2019) Tackling underrepresentation of ‘protected’ student groups: sector learning, Advance HE

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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