Research by Equality Challenge Unit, the higher education equality body, found that the majority of black and minority ethnic (BME) staff in HE who took part had experienced damaging effects on their careers by being treated as subordinates or excluded because of their race.

The report, launched at Imperial College London, documents the experiences of BME staff including for some the corrosion of confidence created by a lack of respect, support and recognition from colleagues.

The research, funded by the HEFCE Leadership, governance and management fund, involved surveys, interviews, focus groups and in-depth fieldwork with BME and non-BME staff across a range of institutional types and geographical spread in England. The study focused on UK national BME staff in academic, professional and support roles.

Speaking on the day of the launch, Gary Loke, ECU Head of Policy said:

‘This research sought to reflect the lived experiences of BME people working in higher education, and it strongly reflects the voices of everyone involved in the study.

The research found there were significant disparities between commitments made publicly by institutions in policies and the realities of BME staff experience. Centralised policies don’t always seem to be applied at department level, with individual managers influencing workload, responsibilities, recruitment and promotion – a situation ripe for unequal treatment and favouritism. Our research also found that BME staff feel blocked from developing “cultural capital”, with lower levels of support for professional development opportunities than those offered to non-BME staff.

There is a need to ensure that BME staff are not discriminated against. This can only happen if higher education institutions have a safe space to discuss these issues frankly and openly as they develop their approach to change institutional culture. ECU is currently working closely with a number of institutions to pilot employment-related initiatives to advance race equality.’

ECU’s research makes recommendations for institutions to help bring about changes. These include holding better data on BME staff, ensuring all departmental managers have equality and diversity training and understand their legal obligations, initiating a range of staff development opportunities for BME staff, monitoring grievance processes and complaints and ensuring high-level support for diversity leads.

Professor Mark Cleary, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Bradford chaired the advisory group that informed the shape of the research. In his foreword to the report, Professor Cleary said:

‘This report shows that whatever ideals we aspire to within our institutions, the reality is frequently rather different.

If I were to distil one key message about the report recommendations it is that now, more than ever, institutions cannot continue practices and cultures which damage the career development, aspirations and life chances of some racial groups for the benefit of others.’