Written Evidence Submitted by University of East Anglia
1. At the University of East Anglia (UEA) we take pride in ensuring equality, diversity and inclusion across all aspects of the University, including in STEM, and we are committed to achieving our goal of being an inclusive place to study and work. Our proactive approach to improving accessibility and inclusivity underpins our ambition and culture. UEA welcomes the Science and Technology Select Committee’s attention to this important issue. In this submission we mainly address points 4 and 5 of the enquiry’s terms of reference by outlining the approach UEA is taking to advance meaningful progress on diversity across all disciplines, including specific interventions to drive up diversity in STEM.
Improving ethnic diversity
2. Recently our Vice Chancellor, Professor David Richardson, led the Universities UK (UUK) advisory group to tackle racial harassment in higher education, informed by an in-depth consultation with panels of BAME students and staff with experience of racial harassment. Whilst the remit of this advisory group was wider than STEM, the recommendations are particularly apt for STEM settings. Professor Richardson concluded that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism and must therefore implement pragmatic strategies to embrace and embed an anti-racist approach. Professor Richardson remains committed to driving reform in this area to ensure the academic sector leads decisive and meaningful change, not just for our universities but for society as a whole. Further information on the UUK advisory group’s recommendations can be provided if the Committee is interested.
3. Within UEA, the Vice Chancellor’s Task Force for Tackling Racism was established in September 2020 as a whole institution approach to improving the experience for BAME staff and students at UEA. Working in collaboration with the Trades Unions and Students Union, the Taskforce is co-chaired by the Vice Chancellor and has broad representation from those with lived experience from across the University. UEA also signed the Race Equality Charter and is working towards a Bronze submission in February 2024.
4. Closing the degree awarding gap in STEM is one of UEA’s priority areas for improvement. Across the English higher education sector, there is a gap in the proportion of good honours degrees (2:1 or 1st) awarded between Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and white students. In the most recently reported national data, this gap stands at 18.3%. At UEA we monitor this gap as part of our Access and Participation Plan and for the last 3 years we have had a 10 point action plan to address the factors identified by our research as causes of this gap.
These areas include:
1. Establishing race equality as an institutional priority
2. Increasing cross institutional awareness and understanding
3. Addressing issues of representation and diversity on campus
4. Settling in and developing a sense of belonging
5. Addressing issues of representation in curriculum, pedagogy and assessment
6. Addressing issue of representation in environment and campus life
7. Academic and Attainment Support
8. Work beyond UEA – addressing broader societal issue
9. Evidence based practice - Research and analysis
10. Understanding what works - monitoring and impact evaluation
In the three years since we started this work, we have seen the gap between BME students and white students in the Faculty of Science close year on year. It now stands at 7.3%.
5. At UEA we acknowledge the limitations of the term Black and Minority Ethnic (BME). Although the Office for Students justify using this term for the purposes of statistical analysis, we understand that racial identity is more nuanced than this. While we use the term for statistical analysis, in our dialogue and action plans, we prefer to use a wider range of racial identities that reflect the true lived experiences of students. Three years ago, the Student Union worked with the UEA School of Pharmacy to implement a range of specific initiatives to support students. A Student of Colour ambassador scheme aimed to create a safe space for discussion to understand and address obstacles faced by students from minority backgrounds. As a result of this scheme’s success, it was extended to the UEA Schools of Biological Sciences and Computing Sciences where there are also significant Black and Minority Ethnic student populations.
Improving socio-economic diversity
6. UEA ensures widening access and participation across the whole student life-cycle (access, success and progression) by implementing our Access and Participation Plan. We work hard to ensure people from groups under-represented in higher education are given the same opportunities as others. We work closely in collaboration with stakeholders, including schools and colleges, HE providers, local authorities, NHS trusts and other educational stakeholders across the eastern region. Whilst we are proud that the social complexion of our student body is much less skewed than that of many other top universities, we also aspire to greater levels of participation from students of disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds across all areas, including in STEM subjects.
7. UEA’s Access and Participation Plan places emphasis on identifying gaps in performance between different groups, and prioritises interventions based on the results of robust monitoring and evaluation. Acknowledging our regional context is critical to setting our strategy. In terms of undergraduate entrants, we are one of the larger HE providers in the East of England region, and by far the largest in our immediate locality (Norfolk and Suffolk) - with significant levels of local undergraduate recruitment. The rural nature of our local areas and the clear pockets of low participation and social mobility they contain are critical factors in designing an impactful approach to widening access and participation. We maintain our commitment to refining our understanding of the groups underrepresented within HE generally and specifically at UEA, and also specified a core set of target groups as follows:
UEA can provide further information on our Access and Participation Plan and our related policies and internal action plans if the Committee is interested.
Improving the experience of disabled students in STEM
8. UEA has one of the most accessible campuses in the UK. We have achieved this over the past five years by concertedly prioritising disability access. UEA has an Access All Areas Team responsible for improving the physical accessibility of the campus as well as the University’s processes and teaching. The Team has a budget of £300K/year and is advised by disabled members of staff and students on all aspects of disability access. They have created a design guide and made substantial improvements including advising UEA’s Inclusive Network Project to guide and train staff to improve the accessibility of their teaching practice. The Access All Areas Team also advises the University’s communications activity, including branding and website to ensure the highest standard of accessibility is applied to all marketing and information about the University.
9. The Committee accurately highlights “the percentage of academic staff with a known disability is lower for staff working in STEM than non-STEM”. UEA is particularly proud of the New Science Building, containing fully accessible teaching and laboratory facilities. The laboratories are used for teaching and research in biology, chemistry, pharmacy, environmental sciences, physics, and electronics. The building has the University’s first Changing Place Accessible toilet, which contains an adult sized bench, hoist and shower to enable students and staff to enjoy greater dignity and higher standards of safety. Additionally, the building has two lifts, two standard accessible toilets per floor, hearing loops, good colour contrast, powered doors, lever taps, and height adjustable benches and fume hoods. The building shows that such facilities can design out access barriers to study and research in STEM.
10. Whilst UEA is proud of the access improvements on our campus, there is still much to do. On a campus with over 200 buildings, we only have one building (The New Science Building) that has no significant structural access barriers. Reasonable accommodations have been required by law for over 26 years since the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, yet most universities campuses, and particularly science laboratories, have substantial built-in barriers to disability access. At present universities are not penalised for refusing students access to courses solely on the basis of their disability and research funders do not require minimum standards of disability access in the facilities where research is conducted. The opportunity cost of not allowing disabled people to have equity of access to education and research is likely to be substantial.
11. Whilst other aspects of diversity have been challenged with improvement programs such as Athena Swan, there are currently no incentives to improve disability access. UEA believes that there should be more explicit support for universities to improve the accessibility of their infrastructure, teaching practices, and processes. UEA has demonstrated that substantial improvements can be made with a modest budget over a short time frame.
Improving diversity in STEM employment
12. Enabling UEA students to transition into employment has always been one of the University’s top priorities. We hope to contribute our experience to help the sector address gaps in student success and participation. In terms of facilitating careers in STEM, the University’s science schools work hard to develop internships and work placement opportunities. In summer 2021 over 60 placements were provided for current undergraduate students (including some from other institutions), ranging from 4 – 10 weeks. To enable these placements to be as inclusive as possible the posts were offered on a part-time basis, (including offering some opportunities for students to work during the academic year) although the majority were taken up as full-time roles. The placements were mostly available to students who were due to complete their studies in the 2021-22 academic year. Some of these opportunities were provided via funding from external organisations (e.g. BBSRC, London Mathematical Society, NERC, Wellcome Trust) although the majority were supported by UEA.
13. In providing opportunities such as these, universities, providers and funders must acknowledge some practical aspects. When students become employees, additional costs are borne by the organisation employing them (e.g. National Insurance liability) meaning that extra funds are needed for each placement. Most employers seem to arrange payments at the end of the month, and sometimes this can be six weeks after the placement has started. This delay in remuneration can disincentivise many students from applying for these opportunities, particularly those disadvantaged financially and those with dependents. Recruitment practices for students have to adhere strictly to UK employment law meaning that appointments can only be made on merit, rather than informed by the diversity of backgrounds of potential applicants.