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Ian Mc Nay

Excellence and equity

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By Ian McNay

This piece is shorter than planned, for which my apologies, though some of you may be grateful. We may get sucked in to the excellence debate over the next few months. My concern is about equity, and what has emerged recently on this.

One of the issues raised by the Green Paper is a commitment to doubling BME entrants to HE, and looking to the white male underclass. The second is urgent, but goes beyond HE. The first is odd, because, overall, participation rates from BME communities in  the UK are higher than for the white population. That is despite the evidence from Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood about racial imbalance in the profile of offers made, particularly by elite universities, and despite Mary Curnock Cook’s comments.

My regret is that my own university failed to look at impact when the new VC reduced full-time undergraduate intake following higher fees in an attempt to move up league tables by raising the average UCAS tariff of entrants. Within this smaller cohort, the proportion of BME entrants went down significantly more than for other groups, and…nobody seemed to notice. When I raised it in an open meeting, there was a blustering defence/denial. Yet still nothing appeared to be done. I have not yet checked the latest figures, and Greenwich has a strong record as an access university, both for those from low participation areas, ‘working-class’ socio economic groups and BME students, reflecting our geographical surroundings – Greenwich is not all a UNESCO heritage site, and neighbouring boroughs – Tower Hamlets, Lewisham – are among the most deprived in the country.

Just as disturbing is the evidence from HESA and the Equality Challenge Unit about the lower grades and degree classes given to Black students. Here I mean Black – those from a Chinese background outperform other groups. But, they, and Black students, have a poor record of being offered post-graduation jobs, in what, prima facie, seems to be a racially biased employment market. Since that affects league table position, too, there is a temptation to let it affect intake, to the detriment of diversity.

What is also emerging is imbalance in staffing. The gender imbalance in promoted posts is well known, as is the pay differential, though HE is better on that than some sectors of employment. Work by staff at Coventry has exposed similar differences for BME staff, in relation to promoted posts and career progression opportunities. The record is nearly as bad as for football managers.

What has received less publicity, certainly in the UUK press digest, was a survey by the Morning Star showing that many universities have staff being paid less than the living wage, even before it was re-defined by George Osborne. Those to whom work is outsourced were not included in these figures, so the numbers – in thousands – may be worse. Salaries for the top team are racing away, widening the gap between the low and (too) highly paid, which inequality research shows leads to lower motivation and productivity.

The Star’s stance on students mean they also give more publicity to cases where management had resisted student claims, e.g. for compensation for disruption in residences through building work. The annual report of the OIAHE shows that there is still a culture of denial of responsibility when students suffer from mismanagement and maladministration. My own granddaughter is one such, when, on a two year part-time master’s course, second year modules crucial to her career intentions have been withdrawn without notice, contrary to recent HEFCE guidelines to good practice. Her supervisor left the university and she was told that she should find another, with little initial commitment to accept responsibility. Ditto a placement. And they invoiced second year fees, when her grandfather had paid all fees up front as a 21st birthday present. As the Green Paper, and the CMA, make clear, students paying the highest fees in the world for public universities expect better, and should get it.

Framing knowledge: the changing environment

To finish on a lighter note, I went in to a major bookshop in Bloomsbury last week, to be faced by three sets of shelves. They were labelled, respectively, ‘Marxism’, ‘Terrorism’, ‘Other –isms’. That seems to be a succinct summary of at least two disciplines in the modern academy.


The international input may be a catch up with a visit to the USA, where a neighbour at dinner on a cruise ship in Alaska, when he discovered what I did, after a nuanced ‘I thought so’ reported that, in the USA, 96 per cent of professors are engaged in corrupting the brains of the country’s youth. Socrates would be proud.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich. 

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Excellence and equity

  1. I can’t remember my password.

    Why do we need it if we subscribe to the list?

    Jim Hartley

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