Inequalities in the discipline of education in UK higher education
Across the globe, quantitative measures in higher education (HE) are drawn upon to identify, monitor and address structural inequalities.
Countries differ in their conceptions of in/equality. The UK HE sectors are guided by state regulatory frameworks, with specific ‘characteristics’ legally protected in the devolved nations. Six of these (sex, ethnicity, age, disability, religious belief and nationality) informed our exploration of statistical data about academic staff, to consider how social determinates affect employment in the discipline of education (Belluigi et al., 2023). We highlight four findings of the differential and intersectional impacts.
1. The academic staff composition of education in UK HE was homogenous.
Compared to the sector as a whole, education employs more staff from high-income countries (97 per cent, compared to 90 per cent from all UK HE); of UK primary nationality (88 per cent, compared to 68 per cent from all UK HE); of ‘white’ ethnicity (85 per cent, compared to 75 per cent in all UK HE); and of Christian belief (22 per cent, compared to 15 per cent in all UK HE).
2. Academic staff recorded as ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’ (BAME) were marginalised.
Over the period of 2015–2020, a growth rate in the employment of staff recorded as BAME was observed. Despite this, such staff were only eight per cent of the staff composition in education by 2020; less than half the proportion recorded in the UK HE sector (at 16.5 per cent). Figure 1 visualises differences between the devolved nations of the UK.
Figure 1: Devolved nations by ethnicity in education and all disciplines (Belluigi et al., 2023, p. 44)
Progression to professor for BAME staff increased to six per cent by 2020. However, there remained no professors in education recorded as ‘Asian/Asian British Bangladeshi’ and as ‘other black background’; no female professors in education recorded as ‘black/black British African’; and no male professors recorded as ‘black/black British Caribbean’.
3. There were continued inequalities between the sexes when it came to parity in attainment and progression, despite there being more female staff (69 per cent) in the discipline of education.
Of the male staff, higher proportions were employed in ‘teaching and research’; in senior academic positions; at professorial level; and in senior management, than the proportions observed in female staff.
4. The exclusion of academics from low- and middle-income countries (LMIC, or the Global South).
The over-representation of those from high-income countries (97 per cent in education; 90 per cent in all UK HE) raises concerns about UK HE’s role in contributing to sustainable development and addressing global inequalities. In education, staff from LMICs (or the Global South) were positioned at lower academic levels, with a lack of progression observed in the five-year period. Differences such as those observed in figure 2 confirm that careful attention should be paid by researchers of UK HE to similarities and differences between the devolved nations when it comes to the study of inequality (Shattock & Horvath, 2020).
Figure 2: Devolved nations with income country proportions in education compared to all disciplines in each devolved nation of the UK (Belluigi et al., 2023, p. 45)
Nine thematic recommended areas for further research included study on:
- Disclosure, reporting and minority/majority inequalities according to gender identity and sexual orientation; socio-economic upbringing; and various abilities, disabilities, chronic ill-health and mental ill-health of staff.
- Staffing issues related to age, ageing, the academic life-course and the intersections of gender, race, class and dis/abilities.
- Barriers to access academic employment for groups most excluded and marginalised, particularly Asian/Asian British Bangladeshi and black/black British African, and those from LMICs.
In the report, we offer measured discussion by referring to insights from current scholarship on UK HE that might be of interest to international readership.
Belluigi, D. Z., Arday, J., & O’Keeffe, J. (2023). Education: The State of the Discipline: An exploration of existing statistical data relating to staff equality in UK higher education. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/education-the-state-of-the-discipline-staff-equality
Shattock, M., & Horvath, A. (2020). The decentralisation of the governance of UK higher education: The effects of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and on England. Policy Reviews in Higher Education, 4(2), 164–178. https://doi.org/10.1080/23322969.2020.1751688
 This terminology is used in UK legislation to represent ethnic groupings of those not racialised as ‘white’. Methodological notes in the report (pp. 18–22) include our decision-making regarding such wording, and limitations imposed by HESA data capture and curation.