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Students' unions need support to make the case for equality

Wednesday 09-09-2015 - 16:10

Make sure your university subscribes to Equality Challenge Unit.

Advancing equality and diversity is a cause close to the heart of every students’ union officer. We all want our institutions to recruit staff and students who genuinely reflect the wider makeup of society, and we want to ensure everyone is treated in a way that helps them fulfil their potential. But making the case for greater diversity isn’t as easy as it should be, it requires evidence, statistics, and careful analysis of the higher education landscape as a whole.

Unfortunately, this presents a significant challenge for universities and students’ unions alike. While unions are passionate about creating inclusive environments, too often they simply don’t have the resources to build an evidence base for creating change. Of course, institutions often employ equality and diversity practitioners, who we know in many cases act as strong allies of students’ unions in trying to bring about improvements in this area, but they too cannot bring about change without access to the information and resources that substantiate their views.

Speaking of information, let’s take a quick look at some statistics:

  • There is an attainment gap of 26.4 per cent between UK white students and UK black students achieving a 2:1 or higher after studying for their first degree.
  • More non-disabled students obtained a 2:1 than disabled students.
  • Women make up the majority of students at all levels, except postgrad.
  • Women make up under 16 per cent of Science, Engineering and Technology subjects.

All of these interesting and potentially useful facts have been extracted from an equality and diversity based statistics report, produced annually by Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), an organisation that was formed specifically to advance equality and diversity in higher education.

For a number of years now, NUS has worked closely with Equality Challenge Unit on a number of shared areas of work. ECU are also responsible for running the Athena SWAN charter, an initiative which started out as a means to increasing the number of women participating in STEMM subjects, and that now addresses issues of gender inequality across arts, humanities, business and law as well. More recently, ECU trialled its pilot Race Equality Charter, which rewards those institutions that take significant measures to eliminate racial inequality on their campuses.

Outside of their charter work, ECU provides institutions with information, training, advice and guidance on issues such as attainment gaps, unconscious bias, reasonable adjustments, and gender pay gaps to name just a few. More recently, NUS teamed up with ECU to produce a report on the experiences of LGBT learners in post-16 education. ECU’s research and training is widely cited by university equality and diversity practitioners as being instrumental in them making the case for equality to senior management.

Due to its central funding in England and Northern Ireland coming to an end, from 2016, the services of Equality Challenge Unit will only be available to universities in those countries who subscribe to it but their students’ unions will also be able to take advantage of ECU’s resources, training, research and events as a result of their as a benefit of institutional subscription (institutions in Scotland and Wales will be able to continue to use ECU’s services without subscribing due to them having different funding arrangements).

Many institutions are signing up already so they can continue to participate in ECU’s charter marks, but I’d strongly recommend checking with the equality staff at your institution to ensure they’re signing up so that your SU colleagues can take advantage and make a stronger case for a more diverse university.


Susuana Amoah (Women’s Officer)
Malia Bouattia (Black Students’ Officer)
Fran Cowling (LGBT+ Officer, Women’s Officer)
Maddy Kirkman (Disabled Students’ Officer)
Robbiie Young (LGBT+ Officer, Open Place)

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