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Diversity & inclusion narratives in HE do not fit neatly into a box

02 Nov 2020 | Sebastian Bromelow, Sanchia Alasia Sebastian Bromelow (LSBU) and Sanchia Alasia (Brunel) share and explore their views on some of the limitations of the diversity and inclusion narratives and terminology used within higher education and how they do not fully represent the realities of the whole sector.

Majority Minorities

Diversity and inclusion narratives in the Higher Education (HE) sector have long been led by our sector-wide bodies such as Universities UK (UUK), Office for Students (OfS), Advance HE, the Russell Group etc., all of whom talk about students and staff from a similar lexicon. But what happens when those seen as “the minority” are actually a university's majority population, i.e. what happens when White middle class young people are not understood as ‘our students’?

Understanding the sector through the prism of White majority has meant that many terms, narratives, and schema taken as standard are, in fact, only applicable to the some and not all. Let us take London South Bank University (LSBU) for example, 62% Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), 70% mature, and 56% female. The percentage of BAME students alone is three times the Russell Group average, which puts us into a bit of a quandary – is it right that we still call our ‘minority students’ minorities when they’re not and how do we contextualise and challenge our internal reality across the sector?

What is in a name?

BAME – Inherited and popularised by the statisticians and governing bodies, BAME has become problematic for majority BAME institutions. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement there have been real and urgent debates on how appropriate that term still is, as the term BAME does not fully represent the different identities and experiences of minority ethnic people. However, can it so easily be replaced? 

There may be times where the term is useful in terms of data collection, particularly where this needs to be disaggregated, for example where the use of the political term Black may not capture the different identities and the issues that they face. But its use can also mask our identities’ differences; Black women have stereotypically been labelled in the past as ‘angry’, which women from other ethnic minority backgrounds may not be labelled with so readily.

Having spoken to hundreds of students in our roles, not a single person uses BAME as an identity marker, so why do we, as a sector, label people as such? Statistical ease mostly, but homogenising thousands of very different people into a handy acronym over-simplifies the challenges and opportunities our sector faces.

At LSBU, one simple step we have taken is that our student data dashboard automatically breaks down the data into the six overarching ethnic groupings rather than just BAME vs White – a simple change to start a more nuanced conversation. This is something we are consciously doing in all our presentations of ethnicity data, as staff and students alike need to feel seen and reflected in our data discourses to empower them to become even better agents of change.

What is clear is that ‘BAME’ students and staff still face discrimination in the workplace and in their studies. It is crucial to listen to all their voices but also respect all the differences in their experiences and the solutions that will need to be developed to tackle them.

Hard to Reach – A favourite amongst University teams and Students’ Unions alike, ‘hard to reach students’ should really be called ‘the students who aren’t like us so we’re not communicating to them well enough’ – which we appreciate isn’t as catchy. ‘Hard to reach’ is something of a get out of jail free card for the sector by placing the difficulty on the decoder rather than the encoder of information. The reality is if the ‘hard to reach’, which so often means BAME students, mature students, parents and commuters, were actually hard to reach, the post-92 institutions would have far less student engagement and student voice than they currently do as we wouldn’t be able to talk to the majority of our students.

It also exposes the risks of the single narrative. By condensing a wide diaspora of students into the box ‘hard to reach’ we create a false profile of these students based on the views and impressions of typically less diverse staff teams. Diversity is not the barrier, but actually the solution. By widening their circles, contacts, stakeholders and voices Universities and Students’ Unions alike can use their diverse staff and student base to gain new ideas into how best to reach the “hard to reach”

Turning ‘other’ into ‘us’

Language is extremely powerful and the way in which we frame our students impacts the way in which we aim to support them to flourish in the HE sector, whomever they may be. One of the primary issues in the way diversity and inclusion narratives are framed is that groups of students are ‘other’ rather than the ‘majority’ or the norm. But who/what is the ‘us’ that this ‘other’ is being defined against?

It typically means White students fresh off the back of A-level (or equivalents) who are leaving home for the first time and are making the most of an ever-increasingly marketised HE sector. But none of that ‘normal’ is normal for us, so what do we do?

A rather simple start could be the way we talk about students full stop. We often talk about our ‘disabled students’, ‘queer students’, ‘BAME students’ as if these students are somehow different to the default ‘student’. We very rarely hear talk of ‘our students who are XYX’. Simply shifting the emphasis from the characteristic to the student means that universities see these students first and foremost as their students, rather than a particular group within their student body. This is particularly urgent in institutions where these groups represent significant minorities or even majority grouping as often the narrative of the sector remains unchanged or unchallenged in day-to-day conversations.

Another simple change is to shift from the dreaded ‘other’ option within data collection. Too often this is a simple tick box what does not allow a person to tell you why they’ve had to select that option. Moving other to be a free text option and/or changing the language to ‘self-identify’ or ‘self-describe’ shows that you care about who this person is, rather than that they don’t fit your prescribed boxes.

A seat at the table

When looking through much of the dominant literature, speakers and writers on the topic of an inclusive and successful future for our students in HE, it is often dominated by a particular number of institutions. These institutions and individuals are doing amazing work that inspires and informs the sector, but at the same time, often do not represent the breadth of the sector or its experiences. We need to see and hear from institutions where diversity is not a consideration only because it is a corporate KPI, or the OfS make us put them in our Access and Participation Plans, but because these students are our students, every day, and we want them all to thrive.

It is also important that no decisions are made about a group without representation from that group, or at the very least reaching out to that group to gain their views.  A top-down approach just will not do in a sector where the ‘top’ looks nothing like the ‘bottom’. Using a more participatory engagement style is what will provide the answers to the complex questions and problems that HEI’s will need to solve in the future, by seeing the diversity of our students and staff as a valuable asset rather than a barrier to overcome.

The same principle applies to the HE sector as a whole – there is a wealth of knowledge and experience of working with ‘these groups’ of students which for some is a challenge and for others is their everyday.

"The Race Equality Charter requests submitting institutions to disaggregate data by specific ethnic groups wherever possible to ensure they capture they specific experiences of the different groups. The expectation is that actions are then developed to deal explicitly with the disparities that particular groups face because of the barriers placed upon them by structural racism within institutions/higher education. 

"We use the term BAME only as a description for ease when discussing our race work but essentially we encourage all race equality work to be in line with our 4th guiding principle - Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students are not a homogenous group. People from different ethnic backgrounds have different experiences of and outcomes from/within higher education, and that complexity needs to be considered in analysing data and developing actions."

Ammara Khan, Head of Race Equality Charter, Advance HE

With over 15yrs experience as a D&I specialist, Sanchia has transformed Brunel’s EDI landscape as their EDI Manager. Sebastian is currently Project Manager at London South Bank University and has been active in education and charity spaces for 10 years.

Find out more about Advance HE's work to support institutions to tackle inequalities and implement strategies to promote and enhance equality across all protected characteristics.


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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