Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Oxford: opportunities for progress
Dr Rebecca Surender, University Advocate for Equality and Diversity, discusses how creating a strong and inclusive community – which works to promote equality and value diversity – remains a key priority for the University
There has never been a more critical and exciting time to be championing equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at Oxford. The issues are high on the agenda of all institutions, including our own, and I believe there is passion and opportunity for real progress.
Staff and students are rightly asking that we accelerate the pace of change as well as organising and initiating change themselves. Global outrage at the brutal killing of George Floyd in the United States shone a light on how bodies address – or fail to address – racism and social injustice, and the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted the disparate pressures and inequalities faced by different groups.
Oxford’s commitment to this agenda – not only concerning race, but EDI across the board – is resolute and, despite the legitimate calls for faster headway, it is important to acknowledge the work taking place and substantive progress across the University. Though arguably late to the table (October 2020 saw the University mark the centenary of women students being admitted as full members*), today women make up half our student body and 43% of members of the University’s governance committees and are among our most successful and high-profile researchers and academic leaders.
We have an international and diverse student body, 30% of whom are Black and minority ethnic (BME). The proportion of UK-domiciled BME undergraduate students entering Oxford continues to rise, from 14% in 2015 to over 22% last year and we are delighted to have launched the Black Academic Futures graduate scholarship programme this year. We are proud to be one of only 15 UK universities to hold a Race Equality Charter award and are equally pleased to have been in Stonewall’s ‘Top 100 Employers List’ for the last two years – both a reflection of commitment and sustained work by students and staff across our University**.
Accreditations and league table rankings can, however, be blunt indicators and don’t easily convey the many and varied developments taking place across the institution and within individual colleges and departments. Work is underway to ensure that the digital experience the University provides for all staff, students and visitors is as inclusive as possible in relation to its website and online services. A large number of actions to support more inclusive teaching content and methods, including curriculum diversification, is also in motion, as are plans to expand the successful Returning Carers’ Fund (established in 2014 to support academic and research staff returning from family leave) to support staff whose research has been impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite these developments, we know very well there are many challenges in eradicating ongoing inequalities and building an inclusive community – there is a lot more to do. It is not enough to recruit more students from BME and other under-represented backgrounds; we must also ensure their academic and social experiences and outcomes are first rate. Priorities for the coming year therefore include further expanding scholarships and bursaries for under-represented student groups, developing more inclusive curriculums and reducing gender, ethnicity and disability examination attainment gaps. Recruiting more women and BME staff to roles where they are under-represented, supporting the mental health and well-being of all staff and students, and eliminating bullying and harassment also remain crucial goals. We will continue to ensure that equality and diversity considerations are at the heart of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the short-term and in addressing longer-term impacts.
A key factor in achieving these goals and ongoing change will be the extent to which EDI work is embedded across the collegiate University and driven by divisions, departments, faculties and individuals. My role as University Advocate for Equality & Diversity, created in January 2015 to work closely with the Equality & Diversity Unit, signalled the priority given to advancing EDI at Oxford. The investment in dedicated divisional – and increasingly, departmental – E&D leads has underscored this. However, irrespective of the commitment and hard work of those of us who are formally tasked to drive EDI, change must come from – and indeed is coming from – all of us. Staff and students across the collegiate University have (on top of their day jobs) participated in committees and ad hoc groups, contributed to the various staff networks, worked within their units to develop and implement Athena SWAN, Attainment Gap and other action plans, created targeted scholarships and diversified curriculums – and assumed ownership of the agenda. This widespread engagement and integration of EDI considerations into our everyday actions, will transform our culture and values, and is what will ultimately secure sustained change.
As my tenure comes to an end, I am excited that the creation of the new Race Equality Task Force will scale-up this work in relation to race equality and offer an opportunity for a step change. In addition to the consultation exercises planned by the Task Force, the coming year will provide other opportunities for wider engagement of staff and students to hold the institution’s feet to the fire. Whether this involves the reflection on the centenary of ‘women making history’, or the institution-wide consultations as we prepare for our reapplications for Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charters, I encourage you to join in the dialogue to shape and advance our equality vision and goals. It will be essential for ensuring the long-term relevance and success of our University.
* Please visit the University's website for more information
** Please see the University’s most recent Equality Report for more details on progress towards equality at Oxford