Ethnic diversity amongst university staff: What barriers exist?

Prioritizing and supporting ethnic diversity across your university’s staff and the higher education sector is crucial, but there are numerous barriers that need to be addressed.  

It’s clear when examining statistics across the globe that higher education institutions still have a long road ahead when it comes to ensuring ethnic diversity is adequately represented in their cohorts.  

In a recent QS report, How to prioritize the ethnic diversity of staff at higher education institutionsstatistics highlight widespread trends around a lack of ethnic diversity amongst staff, demonstrating Eurocentrism and a bias towards the white experience in many higher education institutions. 

In the UK, HESA reports that, in the academic year 2018-19, of the 535 academic managers, directors, and senior officials at UK institutions, 475 were white, 15 were Asian, five were mixed, and zero were Black. 

In the US, data by Pew Research revealed that those who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Alaska Native, make up “a comparatively small share of US college faculty.” 

In Australia, the University of Melbourne revealed that “Asian-born academics made up 15% of teaching and research staff” at Australian universities. However, the university also revealed that “the majority (54%) of Asian Australian academics felt their ethnic and cultural background was a disadvantage in their workplace,” and that Asian Australians were “severely under-represented in the most senior management positions in Australian universities.” 

These inequalities and imbalances exist across the higher education space and reflect the systemic and institutional issues that many are now actively trying to address and combat.  

So, what barriers are exacerbating these existing inequalities and preventing change when institutions work to prioritize ethnic diversity?  


As we can see from the data above, senior leadership teams in higher education institutions can often suffer from a lack of ethnic diversity.  

A 2019 European University Association report (EUA), Diversity, equity and inclusion in European higher education institutions, presented the findings from a survey of 159 institutions from 36 European systems and highlighted that diversity and inclusion strategies are normally dictated by senior leadership teams.  

“There is a strong tendency for strategies to be led by the institutional leadership. Strategies are articulated by the central governing bodies (78% of survey respondents), often with direct involvement of the rector’s cabinet (68% of respondents).” 

If these senior leaders and executives are dictating diversity policies without ensuring adequate and diverse representation within their own teams then there may be gaps within their strategies.  


Additionally, a lack of training and awareness of these issues is common, with many institutions overlooking the need for ongoing and comprehensive training of staff at all levels. 

In the EUA report, 67% of surveyed institutions offer training to teaching staff on inclusive methods and tools, but only 23% have similar training in place for non-academic staff. 

Additionally, 65% of respondents indicated that a lack of awareness or motivation regarding diversity training was a consistent challenge. “While staff training might be available, it is often voluntary and in addition to the usual work, or only mandatory for new staff.” 

Recruitment and advancement 

Racial bias and discrimination can impact the careers of ethnically diverse staff in a variety of ways, from the initial hiring process to career advancement, research funding and academic visibility and standing. 

In an interview with The Guardian, Professor Kalwant Bhopal, the deputy director at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Research in Race and Education, explained how there is a problem at UK institutions with recruiting and promoting BAME staff.  

She explains: “Much of my research suggests that Black minority-ethnic academics feel the goal posts are often moved when they apply for jobs or promotions… Interview and promotion panels tend to be all white. And I’m not going to shy away from saying it, at these panels – within the processes – there are covert, sometimes overt, nuances of racism.” 

Nona McDuff, director of equality, diversity and inclusion at Kingston University, states that this lack of ethnically diverse staff impacts students. “If you look at the ratio of white students to professors, it’s 50:1. For Black students, it’s 2000:1. Early on, as a BAME student you’re reminded the odds are stacked against you.” 

A report by Advance HE into the potential relationship between staff diversity and student outcomes in the UK draws upon evidence which suggested that a lack of BAME role models amongst academics “is one reason why BAME students are less likely to progress into postgraduate study.” 

Deborah Gabriel, senior lecturer at Bournemouth University and founder of the Black British Academics network, also points to the onus placed on Black higher education professionals to push for equality, both within the institutional framework and the curriculum. 

“It’s not recognised that as Black academics, and as Black female academics, that we have to work harder,” she explains. “There is a surface willingness from the institutions to rebalance racial inequality, but ultimately it is non-white professors who have to face the consequences of diversifying the curriculum.” 

It’s clear that there are a multitude of contributing factors that prevent better ethnic diversity and inclusion in the higher education sector.  

Universities should examine what barriers remain within their institution, how they may exacerbate these barriers and what they can do to address these systemic and institutional issues.  

To learn more about how to address these barriers and support better ethnic diversity within your institution, please download our report: How to prioritize the ethnic diversity of staff at higher education institutions. 


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