Less than ten years ago, Oxford University came under fire for its lack of diversity. The former Minister for Higher Education David Lammy accused the University of “social apartheid” after Freedom of Information requests revealed that nearly one in three Oxford colleges failed to make a single undergraduate offer to a black British A-level student in every year between 2010 and 2015.
Since those remarks, the number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students at Oxford has risen by nearly ten percent. The last seven years have seen an increased University focus on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) with new targets, new policies, and new committees. The situation has certainly changed, but exactly how much progress has been made? And how much more needs to be done?
Oxford’s EDI policies
All EDI policies and strategies are overseen by Oxford University’s Equality and Diversity Unit (EDU). The Unit is headed by Vernal Scott, who was recently appointed to the role in October after previously leading Diversity and Inclusion for the Essex police. The EDU works to create an inclusive culture and a respectful environment for both students and staff alike. Professor Tim Soutphommasane, the University’s chief diversity officer, told Cherwell: “Our efforts on this are about ensuring we attract and retain the very best students and staff, from all backgrounds and from all parts of the world.”
The University’s EDI policies are rooted in the 2010 Equality Act, which protects identified groups from discrimination, harassment or victimisation. In accordance with the act, Oxford University holds five Equality Objectives:
- Diversify the University’s governance structures
- Increase the proportions of women and minority ethnic staff in senior roles
- Promote the visibility and inclusion of LGBT+ staff and students
- Widen undergraduate access and admissions
- Eliminate attainment gaps
In July 2018, a strategic plan was developed to improve attainment of these objectives over the next five years, but its execution time was extended by an additional year due to pandemic-related delays in funding and resources.
The Strategic Plan includes 17 commitments and 29 priorities in the themes of education, research, people, engagement and partnership, and resources. Increasing the numbers of students from underrepresented groups, reducing gaps in attainment relating to gender and ethnicity, and achieving a more diverse staffing profile are just a few of the Plan’s aims.
The achievement of these commitments and priorities has been the responsibility of various committees and bodies, made up of the University’s most senior officers, including Pro-Vice-Chancellors and Proctors.
Have EDI policies been a success?
In many ways, Oxford’s EDI policies have achieved a lot. The proportion of admitted UK-domiciled students who identify as BME has risen from 18% to 28%, falling in line with the nationwide student population.
The makeup of the University’s staff has also diversified. Since 2011, the number of women in the most senior academic grade, Statutory Professor, nearly doubled, and there was a 2% increase in the proportion of BME senior researchers between 2020 and 2022.
The proportion of students from different ethnic groups at other UK universities and at Oxford do mostly line up: 12% of all UK students come from Asian backgrounds and 14% of Oxford students do as well. Much of this progress can be credited to the development access programmes, such as Opportunity Oxford and UNIQ.
However, there is no doubt that extensive attainment gaps still remain. For example, only 3.3% of Oxford’s undergraduate admissions are of Black African or Black Caribbean heritage, while the nationwide average across all universities is 9%. Furthermore, The Times Good University Guide ranked Oxford as the 13th “whitest university” out of the 24 Russell Group universities.
The University’s Equality Objective to increase the presence of women and ethnic minorities in senior roles has only been partially achieved, falling short of its original goals. As of 2022, 10% of academic staff were BME, compared to a target of 15%. Similarly, women only compose 39% of governance structures, which falls short of the 40% to 60% goal.
While the Strategic Plan has made progress on many of the Equality Objectives – a University Staff experience survey found that 83% of staff felt they were “able to be themselves” at work – some still have a long way to go. The lack of progress on many issues can be explained by difficulties posed by the pandemic and a lack of finance. The progress report in 2019 noted: “Securing funding for planned activities is the major challenge across the Strategic Plan priorities.”
Some have also wondered whether the disjointed and broad nature of the Plan, with numerous priorities covering issues from student diversity to research investments, complicated its implementation and fulfilment of objectives.
When asked if the aims of the Strategic Plan were realistic, Professor Soutphommasane told Cherwell: “We are resolved to build on our progress. That is why we are developing a new collegiate University Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategic plan that will guide the next state of our institutional efforts.”
What do students think?
A recent Cherwell survey found that 74% of students do not think Oxford is an inclusive environment. When asked whether the University’s approach to EDI was effective, only 11% voted “yes,” with 53% voting “only partially.” So despite convergence in admissions statistics and near completion of most objectives, overwhelming student opinion suggests Oxford still has a long way to go toward total Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.
One issue seems to be the lack of engagement with students in the implementation of many EDI policies and commitments. All college JCRs have BME or Ethnic Minority representatives, who might be interested in communicating about and providing feedback on the University’s EDI policies as the spokespeople for the students of colour in their colleges.
The University of Oxford seems to agree. It told Cherwell: “Students are central to the University’s EDI approach and Equality Objectives.” Yet only half of surveyed college representatives had heard of the Equality and Diversity Unit, and none of them said they had received any contact from this committee, which is responsible for fostering an inclusive environment at Oxford.
One BME representative told Cherwell: “Our work as BAME Reps is often isolating…I receive no dedicated support or resources from the University or my college.”
The LGBTQ+ Society President had a different perspective. She told Cherwell that, although she had once been a harsh critic of the University’s approach to EDI, she has “since worked with them and realised there is a lot of goodwill and desire to do better.” She further stated the EDU helped facilitate three meetings with the VC which led to tangible results.
The broader difficulty of achieving a unified policy partly stems from Oxford’s collegiate system. With 39 different colleges that each have their own independent governing body, it often seems impossible to expect uniform change.
To combat this, a University Joint Committee on EDI has been established, about which the University told Cherwell: “There are efforts to join-up the work that students and staff are doing across colleges, departments and divisions.”
Over the last decade there has been a concerted effort to improve Oxford’s EDI policies, which has led to undeniable progress. The success of new access schemes and increased attention given to improving this area of University life have led to statistically significant growth in diversity among staff and students.
However, equality, diversity, and inclusion do not just lie in the numbers. Diversity is a step in the right direction but our investigation confirms that there is still a lot of work to do to make Oxford a fully equal and inclusive place for all.