Tackling inequality for BAME students and staff in business schools

A recent Universities UK Report (2019) argued that, “As other organisations have dealt with the injustices and inequalities faced by ethnic minorities, the higher education sector has fallen behind other parts of the education sector, the NHS and local government in addressing these inequalities”. Although business schools are often the most diverse of our university faculties, evidence suggests that we may be disadvantaging specific groups of students and staff through our teaching practices and organisational processes. It is therefore timely that the Chartered ABS annual Diversity Workshop (held on 27 February 2019) was on this issue. In the words of the University of the West of England’s Equity programme, “the time for talk is over” and we must address the growing attainment gaps for our Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and diversify our academic community and its leadership (see Miller 2016; Mountford-Zimdars et al. 2017). It is everyone’s responsibility.

Annie Ruddlesden (Advance HE) looked at the Race Equality Charter (REC) to highlight why action was needed. In terms of student data, the gap in final degree results between white and BME students is closing but remains, with nearly 79.6% of white students being awarded a first class or 2:1 degree, compared with 66% of BME students. Although the gap of 13% (2017) was smaller than the 15% seen in 2016, action is not being taken fast enough and other data shows that 11.2% Black students leave HE without a qualification – significantly higher that the level of 6.9% for white students.

In terms of staff, Advance HE’s 2018 report found that in 2016-17, just 25 black women were working as professors (out of about 19,000 professors in total). More than 14,000 white men were recorded as professors, while just 90 black men held positions of the same status. Furthermore, BAME staff were more likely than their white peers to be in junior positions, to be less well paid and to be employed on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts. Of staff with known ethnicity, 9.4% of UK staff identified and 28.4% of non-UK staff identified as BME. The same report found that business school faculty in the UK are 86% white and 14% BME. Yes, there are a handful of business school deans and directors who identify as BAME, but we are a long way from reflecting our diverse student body. If these statistics fail to prompt action, then the real-life experiences of colleagues captured by University College London found BAME staff reported feeling fear and discrimination in the form of widespread ‘nepotism’, ‘lack of transparency’, hostile spaces, lack of development, and failure of senior managers to engage proactively with their career.

Many projects submitted by REC holders are overly reliant on the goodwill of a few committed individuals and are not championed by senior leadership. Despite the evidence, there remains widespread denial that there is even an issue and this is coupled with a plethora of excuses and lack of action. It is time to address the structural, cultural and procedural barriers in our schools. Some of the issues include: low targets against low benchmarks being set, a lack of race expertise, a tendency to ‘copy and paste’ equality strategies regardless of context and a slow shift away from a deficit model (i.e. ‘BME staff/students lack something’). As the REC principles state, “UK higher education cannot reach its full potential until individuals from all ethnic backgrounds can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords”. We have a moral duty and REC’s holistic approach encourages us to look more closely at our business curriculum, our pedagogy, the learning environment (how diverse are staff and campuses), and in turn empower our students to fosters a stronger sense of belonging for all.

Further highlighting inequality across the sector, Kirsty Johnson from the Office for Students outlined the need to address significant equality gaps between different ethnic groups in terms of access, success and progress in higher education. OfS has been particularly instrumental in highlighting the differential outcome metrics in TEF and the disparities across the sector in terms of gaps in non-continuation and degree attainment between groups of students. One of the most effective ways to address this is to engage with students in co-creation to address systematic bias and develop programmes of work to foster greater levels of understanding and in turn, more inclusive practices.

Dr Francesca Sobande’s deeply reflective and personal work shone a light on the issues of intersectionality, its systematic issue and the impact on attainment, progression and mental health. It’s clear that black women regularly find themselves on the margins of mainstream disciplinary activity. The facts about the number of black female professors are unsurprising given some, “Black women encounter systemic and sustained bullying as part of their pursuit of professorship, and as a result of intersecting oppression (racism, sexism, and other forms)” (Rollock, 2019)”? So in turning to action, are we open to a “decolonization of the mind” (Kilomba, 2010)? Dr. Sobande’s call for us to revise our business curriculum is challenging as it involves a critique and examination of the normative conceptualisations and teachings of ‘developing’ countries and a decentring the Eurocentric patriarchal perspectives that characterise so much of our curriculum. Furthermore, we must recognise structural inequalities in terms of business activity and knowledge production and create a space that interrogates intersecting inequalities. In brief, business schools must address “the power of hegemonic histories that wilfully produce collective amnesia” (Noble 2017: 4).

As a sector, we know what we need to do but there is no ‘magic lotus flower’.. We are not short of ideas, initiatives and projects across our institutions. Unfortunately, we rarely take the time to look outside our business school boundaries to other faculties, let alone other institutions and think about what we can do.

In terms of faculty, we don’t need to look much further than the work at the Leicester Castle Business School, De Montfort University detailed by Ruth Watson. How did their business school get from 47 (21%) BAME staff (2015/16) to 109 (34.2%) in 2019 with an increased number in senior management? It seems a series of simple interventions (mentoring, career development and clear expectations) and genuine senior management commitment to addressing inequality through ‘DMUfreedom’ was key. When recruiting new staff, do we take the time to assess whether our processes foster diversity? Their approach seems simple and replicable: define the Employer Value Proposition in terms of mission and culture; broaden the talent pool (refreshed adverts, diversity strapline, faculty networks); use a range of selection methods that prioritise equality and diversity; and provide a great candidate experience. What was perhaps most striking was DMU saw a 13% increase in BAME staff since 2016 and a 4.7% decrease in the BAME attainment gap in 2016. You don’t need statistical tests to see the correlation!

When supplemented with the approach taken by the University College London, outlined by Claire Herbert, to bring about greater equality for BAME staff, it is clear that for any schemes to work, they require senior leadership to drive them through – this is where institutional commitment needs to be visible and real through equality and diversity committees, Deans with diversity roles and courageous positive active. We must also encourage our students to hold us to account.

In turning attention to students, the Equity Programme at the University of the West of England explained by Donna Whitehead and Dr Zainab Khan has seen the positive impact of making focused investment in BAME talent development. Why are we not all looking @Bristol_Equity and thinking, might something similar work in my context and my school? What messages can I take to the senior team about how we support positive action leadership programmes?

Dr Helen Barefoot from the University of Hertfordshire Business School has taken the simple view - data is key to helping dispel the myths and trigger action. If there was any doubt, then the ‘Value Added Data’ project provides the evidence of gaps at programme and module level. No one wants to disadvantage their students and if you know as a module leader you might be doing this then that’s a powerful motivator to do something about it. For that business school, a combination of leadership projects, BAME student advocates, student co-creation and networks is tackling the issue head on. For me, students working as consultants reviewing material and practices in the class is powerful and prompts action.

What might work in your business school? A plethora of ideas have been generated – many of which have also been raised in the publication by UK Universities of ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK universities: #ClosingtheGap which outlines five steps for universities to improve BAME student outcomes. In brief these are:

  1. providing strong leadership where there is a clear a commitment to removing the BAME attainment gap and lead by example;
  2. have conversations about race and changing cultures to bring about a change in culture;
  3. developing racially diverse and inclusive environments which ensure BAME students have a good sense of belonging at their university;
  4. obtain evidence and data on the attainment gap to inform discussions between university leaders, academics and students; and
  5. understanding what works and share evidence of what works and what doesn't.

It is this final point where the Chartered ABS can play a role. The Diversity Workshop provided an opportunity to bring colleagues together to showcase and discuss what works, and inspire all to develop actions for their own business schools and institutions. If change is to happen, we need to look at ourselves and identify the numerous barriers and forms of structural oppression, and challenge them in substantial and meaningful ways. What will you do?

Professor Sally Everett, King’s Business School, King’s College London


Kilomba, G. (2010). Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism. Münster: Unrast-Verlag.

Miller, M. (2016) The Ethnicity Attainment Gap. Available from: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.661523!/file/BME_Attainment_Gap_Literature_Review_EXTERNAL_-_Miriam_Miller.pdf

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Sanders, J., Moore, J., Sabri, D., Jones, S & Higham, L. (2017) What can universities do to support all their students to progress successfully throughout their time at university?, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 21:2-3, 101-110, DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2016.1203368

Noble, D. (2017) Decolonizing and Feminizing Freedom: A Caribbean Genealogy. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Rollock, N. (2019) Exploring black and minority ethnic (BME) doctoral students’ perceptions of an academic career. University and College Union. Available at: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8633/BME-doctoral-students-perceptions-ofan-academic-career/pdf/UCU_Arday_Report_-_June_20171.pdf

UniversitiesUK (2019) ‘Black, Asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK universities. Available from https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Pages/bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.aspx

Resources and further information

There is a CABS LinkedIn group for anyone interested in tackling this issue. If you would like to be added to the group, please click on this link https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8755877/

ECU Statistical report on student participation by various protected characteristics: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance-resources/using-data-and-evidence/statistics-report/

ECU/UCAS guide to ethnicity data in admissions: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/ethnicity-in-admissions-data/

HEIDI dashboards: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/services/heidi-plus

HEA - ‘What Works?’ research project (HEA funded): https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/individuals/strategic-priorities/retention/bme-attainment-gap