Black and female academics: university pace of change ‘glacial’, says UCU

The most recent statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest there may only be around 200 black professors and senior academics employed in UK universities

Universities must take “decisive action” to support black and female staff reach the most senior roles in academia, said the general-secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) following the release of new higher education employment figures.  

The most recent Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) figures reveal that, of 22,810 professors in the UK, under a third (27%) were women and only 155 (1%) were black. The figure of nearly 23,000 omits many professors, such as department heads, who Hesa count under more senior job titles. Of the 6,065 ‘senior academics’, just 50 are black, according to Hesa. 

Universities UK conceded in a report in November 2020 that higher education must address racial harassment, saying the sector helps “perpetuate institutional racism“.

Advance HE told University Business in July 2020 that 10 universities signed up to the Race Equality Charter during the 2019/20 academic year. Of all the higher education institutions (HEI) in the UK, only 66 are members of the initiative: of those, only a quarter have been awarded at least bronze status for their efforts to implement “a framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of minority ethnic staff and students”.

Atypical contracts

Elsewhere, the Hesa statistics show a rise in the proportion of teaching-only contracts since 2015/16, from 26% to 32%. A report for the UCU last year by Nick Megoran and Olivia Mason described the proliferation of teaching-only contracts as “dehumanising” because staff miss the opportunity to develop research interests, which are often crucial for long-term career prospects in academia. 

Megoran and Mason accused universities of “brazenly” flouting the principle enshrined in the Magna Charta Universitatum, of which most are signatories, that “teaching and research in universities should be inseparable”. 

Fewer academics were last year employed on so-called ‘atypical’ contracts than at any point since 2015, falling to 66,000 last year from a peak of 72,000. These roles are described as those that require “a high degree of flexibility… to work as-and-when required” and those that “are for one-off/short-term tasks”. There were 3,545 academics (excluding atypical) staff on a zero-hours contract in 2019/20, compared to 4,240 in 2018/19. 

Ucea’s 2020-21 final offer recognised the importance of these issues and included joint work that would see institutions, in discussion with unions locally, eliminate or phase out the use of zero-hour contracts where possible – Raj Jethwa, Ucea

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Universities must do more to ensure a more representative mix of staff at a senior level and stop this terrible waste of talent. The pace of change is glacial, and universities need to do much more to examine and tackle the barriers which prevent women, black and disabled staff from progressing.  

“Another key intervention should be to reduce the growing reliance on teaching-only contracts, numbers of which have risen once again this year. These contracts are often used by institutions to force staff into different roles against their will – not because the quality of their research has dropped – but simply because of perverse incentives created by the current Research Excellence Framework submission rules.” 

Raj Jethwa, chief executive of the University and College Employers Association (Ucea), said: “Hesa’s staff record is a valuable resource for monitoring developments in the sector workforce. Following joint work between HE trade unions and Ucea, this is the third year where detailed information on hourly-paid and zero hours contracts are provided.

“Positive indications in the data are a fall in the use of zero-hours for academic staff, while the proportion of academics on hourly-paid contracts has not risen. Some HE institutions use small numbers of flexible contracts for professionals and experts from outside the sector to contribute to teaching and the flexibility they can provide can be mutually beneficial. While these figures are pre-pandemic, it is important to recognise that all HE institutions have long shared an aim to provide continuity and security of employment for their staff, whenever possible, and to reduce the stress that can be caused by uncertain working arrangements.

“The employment arrangements within autonomous universities are for institutional-level discussions. Ucea’s 2020-21 final offer recognised the importance of these issues and included joint work that would see institutions, in discussion with unions locally, eliminate or phase out the use of zero-hour contracts where possible.”

In a letter to Paul Bridge and Ruth Levin, joint union-side secretaries for the higher education sector trade unions, Ucea proposed a joint project to tackle gender- and ethnicity-based pay gaps as part of its 2020-21 pay offer. “We propose a joint task and finish group to develop an analysis alongside potential solutions for HEIs to consider as part of a checklist of materials.

“This work would also include case studies to highlight a broad range of potential solutions across the employment experience, from recruitment through to progression, the effect of career breaks and work on closing identified ethnicity pay gaps. We believe it would be a positive step for employers and unions to work together to conduct research into career progression for women and BAME members of staff and to engage in joint work to improve access to data sets across all grades and staffing groups.”

A report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute in September 2019 suggested research grants should be conditional on tackling racial inequality.


Read more: LSBU pledges to close ethnicity pay gap by 2025

Related news: Nottingham Trent University to ‘become an anti-racist institution’

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