What do universities need to do to ensure diversity in education?

Diversity in education is a hot topic. There is ever-growing pressure at government level for universities to improve levels of diversity in higher education so that everyone – regardless of their background, level of affluence or their race – has the same chance to pursue their educational goals. But this is a complex issue, with some top universities blaming the pressure to increase diversity on their recent drop in world rankings. This article examines the issues behind diversity in education and asks how universities can strive to improve diversity to create a truly fair educational playing field.

Educational diversity – the current situation

Economist Lionel Robbins wrote a ground-breaking report more than 50 years ago, stating that “higher education courses should be available to ‘all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’” More than half a century on, there is still much work to do. David Cameron recently attacked one of Britain’s most elite universities, the University of Oxford, stating that only 27 black British students out of 2,500 were accepted into Oxford University during 2014. This suggests that issues of racial inequality still need considerable attention. Learn more about the roots of this inequality with the BBC Active produced series on the history of racism.

The government has called for a change in legislation where universities will have to be more transparent about showing full details of the applications, acceptances and rejections across ethnicity, gender and socio-economic backgrounds. While the focus has been on the top universities such as Oxbridge, there’s clearly the need for a much wider pool of universities to look hard at their cultural diversity in education.

Lack of diversity in education at Oxford University

Challenges in ensuring diversity

For universities, improving diversity in the classroom is a complex and political issue. Oxford University, under perhaps the strongest spotlight of all, saw its world rankings drop from third place to fifth; some experts are citing the pressure on these universities to take more disadvantaged students as a direct result of the drop in status. Across the UK the number of universities in the top 100 fell from 12 to just 10. If these universities continue to drop in status, future funding and business could arguably be at risk.

Another key challenge is the earlier experience of students from disadvantaged backgrounds which may not be providing them with the best chances to get into the top universities. Disadvantage is often deep-rooted and needs to be addressed much earlier to give students the best possible chance in the future. Some state schools say that they feel unprepared to support their students into the elite universities and that more needs to be done to encourage a dialogue between the private and state sectors.

Students interested in the arts are at an immediate disadvantage if they attend state rather than private schools, as funding cuts have resulted in dramatic falls in the number of students studying arts-based subjects at secondary level. Students simply can’t apply for arts-based degrees if they haven’t been able to study these subjects at school.

Considering all of these challenges, can universities be expected to take all the responsibility (and indeed the blame) for lack of diversity in higher education?   

Harvard university, which has lead the way for diversity in education

The way forward

While there are clearly significant issues to be addressed, it’s not all bleak. The Office for Fair Access reports that entry into higher education for students from the most deprived parts of the UK has increased by a phenomenal 65% since 2006. Over £105 million was spent on outreach activities to improve diversity in the classroom, focused on supporting disadvantaged communities, improving students’ results and targeted summer schools.

There is plenty of existing good practice within universities which focuses on diversity in education, but how can universities strive to continuously improve? In the United States, (which has a staggering 43 universities in the world rankings compared to the UK’s 10) many universities put cultural diversity at the heart of their work. Some of their findings are highly relevant to universities across the globe:

  • Universities can work in partnership with the private and state sectors more effectively, giving state schools the tools they need to prepare their students to apply for the top universities.
  • While most, if not all, universities will have policies on diversity and equality, these should be live and dynamic policies with regular reviews on their effectiveness.
  • Some institutions in the United States have compulsory modules for all students, regardless of their course, on cultural diversity.
  • Universities have the opportunity to celebrate cultural diversity. As well as marking particular cultural events, universities could hold an annual intercultural week or month with lighthearted events linked into more serious lectures and discussions.

It’s clear that universities face intense political pressure to improve diversity in education, and equally that there are complex challenges behind this issue. But universities that do lead the way in striving to improve educational diversity will be giving students essential intercultural skills that could finally begin to close the diversity gap.

BBC Active Video for Learning provides an outstanding range of educational videos on a diverse range of topics. These videos are invaluable resources for bringing any subject to life in the classroom.