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‘True allyship is essential if we are to make change in HE’

20 Mar 2024 | Professor Marcia Wilson Multiple award-winning academic leader and researcher, Professor Marcia Wilson from London Metropolitan University, delivered the keynote speech at the Advance HE EDI Conference 2024.

More than 500 HE professionals with an interest in equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) descended on Liverpool for Advance HE’s two-day Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Conference 2024.

In a keynote speech on day one, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience and Institutional Equity at London Metropolitan University, told delegates that “true allyship is essential if we are to make change in higher education.”

Prof Wilson is a regular speaker on Aurora, Advance HE’s leadership development programme for women. She was recently a participant on Advance HE’s prestigious Top Management Programme for Higher Education, a development opportunity for executive leaders.

She said, “Bearing in mind the title of this conference, [‘The Future is Now: Building EDI Practice for the Changing World of HE’] I think it important to say that in the changing world of EDI practice some things DO change, but some things stay fundamentally the same. One of the key issues in HE that I believe has lost momentum post-Covid, and one where urgent progress needs to be made, is the experience of Black students and staff. 

“One of the key problems in higher education is that all-white spaces are often the norm and there is a lack of critical understanding and knowledge about whiteness and how it works to maintain and reproduce the status quo.” 

How does this play out for our students?

“The awarding gap between Black and white students is 17.1 percentage points.

“From 2019 to 2020, 87.1% of White students received a 2:1 or First, while only 70% of Black students achieved this award. 

"White students are almost twice as likely to achieve a First-Class degree than their Black counterparts.

“In 2019, Leading Routes, a Black female owned organisation that works with universities to strengthen the pipeline from undergraduate to academic, highlighted that over a three-year period from 2016/17 to 2018/19, just 1.2%, or 245 of the 19,868 studentships awarded by all UKRI research councils went to Black or Black Mixed students and only 30 of those were from a Black Caribbean background. 

“Very clearly, there is a ‘pipeline’ issue. Black students enter university at higher numbers than other groups of students but least likely to graduate, let alone graduate with a first or a 2:1. Less likely to progress onto a Masters degree, or a PhD and therefore become an academic.” 

Black staff

“The ethnicity pay gap is 13% on average but does vary considerably across the sector.

“Black staff are more likely to be on precarious contracts in higher education.

“There are now 66 black women professors out of over 23,500 (there were 25 in 2019!)

“The higher education sector is one area where there is underrepresentation of Black employees at all levels. It is particularly concerning that many senior management continues to be all white. In the history of VC appointments in the UK, we have witnessed three Black leaders. In 2020, Professor Charles Egbu was appointed VC of Leeds Trinity University and in 2023 Professor David Mba of Birmingham City. In 2015, Baroness Valerie Amos was appointed Director of SOAS, she is the closest we have come to having a Black woman VC because the UK has never had a Black woman hold the title of Vice Chancellor.”

Where do we go from here? 

“We are not seeing the change that is needed to impact inequities for Black staff and students. Universities will never reach their full potential until they can capitalise on truly diverse teams at all levels of the institution. This work slips off the agenda when we are strapped for cash and busy trying to ensure our institutions are financially sustainable but we cannot let it slide. 

“Action starts with a personal commitment that you will gain knowledge about what the key issues are in relation to anti-racism and what genuine allyship looks like. It involves being willing to do the work because you think it is important for you to contribute to creating change. It is also reviewing the systems, policies and practices of your institution that might result in poorer outcomes for Black people.

“True allyship is essential if we are to make change in higher education. Knowledge of institutional racism and what it means to be anti-racist is key. In my experience, too many people do not know how to talk about race and racism. If you cannot articulate it, you will not be able to address it.”


Find out more about Professor Marcia Wilson.

Allyship in Higher Education eLearning Course

This e-Learning course aims to introduce participants to the practice of allyship within higher education institutions. Participants will be provided with baseline tips and tools for recognising opportunities for allyship, as well as enacting allyship, at the individual, interpersonal, and organisational levels.

Find out more

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