PA Editorial

PA EDitorial

Diversity and inclusivity in academia: current challenges and opportunities

Diversity and inclusivity’s historical past

In 1851, the Catholic academic and theologian John Newman gave a series of lectures on the state of Catholicism in the United Kingdom.[1]

Newman was a convert to Roman Catholicism and wrote at a time when Catholics held fewer rights and privileges in English society than their Protestant counterparts.[2] It wasn’t until the passing of the Tests Act in 1871 that Roman Catholics were permitted to enter universities.[3]

Newman’s lectures became a subject of controversy within academia, partly because he had shed light on the religious inequality that existed within this space. But religious inequality wasn’t the only form of discrimination to occur in the academic world.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that women were first admitted to university, although initially only to certain subjects such as languages and literature. Even later still, in the twentieth century, came a woman’s right to access all courses and degrees.

Change for students from ethnic minority backgrounds was even slower to progress towards diversity and inclusivity, and it was only in the 1960s that universities began to open their doors to these students. Even this advancement was sluggish and frequently hindered by discrimination and prejudice.

Astonishingly, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 90s that significant progress was made in ensuring greater diversity in higher education.

It could be argued that British academia has come a long way since the once vehement anti-Catholicism of Victorian society mentioned above. Yet, even in 2023, there are still pressing issues of inequity that need to be addressed.

Diversity in academia today

Diversity in academia today refers to the range of differences among individuals. These differences include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability status, and socio-economic background.

Inclusivity refers to creating an environment where all individuals, regardless of their identity, feel valued, respected, and supported to succeed in their academic pursuits.

Both are equally important because they promote a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of complex issues, encourage innovation and creativity, and enhance the quality of research and education.

In Newman’s words, students and universities should be ‘keen; open-hearted; sympathetic; observant’ and ‘engage with humanity’s most difficult questions; issues; and problems’.[4] For this to happen, the views and understandings of marginalised communities need to be included within the academic mainstream.

A problem of representation

A recent report found that only 1% of UK professors are black, compared to 3% of the wider population.[5,6] In STEM fields alone, black people make up 8% of student undergraduates but only 0.4% of professors.[7]

Likewise, women only hold 28% of UK professorships – although only a slight improvement, this is up 5% from 2016.

Academic bodies are taking steps to address this problem. For example, in late 2022, the Royal Academy of Engineering awarded over £700,000 in funding to universities to empower underrepresented students.[8]

Major corporations, such as Amazon, offer bursaries to women from low-income families to study computer science or related engineering courses at UK universities.[9] As it stands, women represent just 19% of accepted applications in these fields. [10]

Balancing it out

Although progress is being made, any attempt to solve these problems must be measured, practical and effective, or they risk doing more harm than good.

For example, in a controversial move last year, some universities dropped Shakespeare and Chaucer from the curriculum in an attempt to ‘decolonise’ it and make literature courses more appealing to students from minority backgrounds.[11]

The question such a decision raised is whether the proposed solution – not the underlying sentiment – removes literature that has its own place within our historical understanding of events. It could be ambiguous as to whether such an approach would even promote greater diversity within these academic fields or whether it inevitably reduces diversity by shifting the inequality elsewhere. Ultimately, equality is not only important for promoting fairness and justice for all but also for fostering academic excellence and advancing knowledge for the benefit of all.

Above all else – funding, sports, and facilities – the reputation and quality of a university hinge on the character of the people that it can attract. A university that does not seek to create an inclusive, diverse, safe and equal environment for all intersectional groups will struggle to compete with those that do.

As Newman once said, universities should engage with humanity’s most challenging questions and issues, and this requires diverse perspectives and understanding. The challenge for academics, therefore, is to bring in these different perspectives in a way that not only provides value for underrepresented groups but does not alienate the wider academic community and, indeed, the general public.

Moreover, when we prioritise equality, we can encourage collaboration, critical thinking, and innovation as individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives bring their unique experiences and ideas to the table.

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[3] Ibid.







[10] Ibid.


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