11 May 2021 Opinion
11 May 2021 Opinion
2 May 2019 Publications
2 May 2019 Publications
2 May 2019 Opinion
2 May 2019 Opinion
Last updated on Tuesday 14 Dec 2021 on 1:46pm
Over two years on from Baroness Amos leading the joint Universities UK and NUS report, #ClosingTheGap, we sat down with her to discuss her career, her reflections on #ClosingTheGap, and the work she’s been doing to combat racial inequality one year into her role as Master of University College, Oxford.
Q: In what ways has your background shaped your career in higher education?
A: I’ve been involved in campaigns throughout my student life, but also my working life. A number of those campaigns have come from the things that I believe in very strongly: women’s equality, race quality, and rights and justice.
Social justice is very much at the heart of what I care about and am committed to.
Social justice is very much at the heart of what I care about and am committed to. That experience has helped me connect with campaigners working outside organisations to help bring about change. It’s not always possible to do; those who are on the outside campaigning are asking for a lot more than an organisation is able to deliver.
I think that’s a good thing, because it helps to give an impetus to those inside an organisation who are working for change to demonstrate that there are those outside the organisation that have an agenda which aligns with their own, yet goes much further. It’s really important for organisations to demonstrate direction of travel – to be ambitious, and to keep up the momentum. It’s easy to become stuck and disheartened, and to feel that not much can be achieved. Change is possible; I have seen it.
Q: Over two years have passed since you led the UUK and NUS joint report, #ClosingTheGap. In your experience, what have the biggest strides forward been in closing degree awarding gaps since then?
A: I think that that’s a really difficult question to answer. One of the reasons that it’s so difficult to answer is, of course, the experience of Covid-19 and the impact that has had on education.
Covid-19 has had a major impact on those still at school. Everything moved online and we saw the move to assessments rather than exams. I know this caused big concerns among a lot of young people of colour, because they felt that the assessment of their attainment by teachers weren’t necessarily going to be fair.
There were a lot of young people who said that they would have much preferred to go through exams, and we saw the impact in that first summer of Covid, when the government had to change its view because there was such a backlash.
Did the range of measures implemented because of the pandemic help speed up the narrowing of the gap? We really need to find out.
What we’ve seen in some universities, and we saw it here at Oxford, was that some exams were postponed to later years and some exams were moved online, in different formats. We don’t have enough data yet to tell us the impact of that. It has been a very disruptive period for students and staff. But I have been struck by the fact that if you look at the five year period before 2020, the biggest degree awarding gap, between Black and white students, narrowed by about 5%. Between 2019 and 2020 it narrowed again by 5%, in just a year.
What happened between 2019–20? Did the range of measures implemented because of the pandemic help speed up the narrowing of the gap? We really need to find out.
I think it’s too soon for us to tell, but I hope that the things that we highlighted in our report – including the importance of leadership, the importance of a whole organisation approach, and the importance of really taking account of culture within a higher education organisation – have been used by higher education organisations to begin to change what’s happening in their own institutions.
I hope that the things that we highlighted in our report [...] have been used by higher education organisations to begin to change what’s happening in their own institutions.
When we were doing this work, we went around the country and talked to a lot of people, including students and those working in academia. I think that the recommendations that we came out with are still viable.
Q: What do you think the biggest barriers are to combating racial inequalities in higher education currently?
A: There are so many barriers. I think that there is still a huge amount of complacency. Somehow there’s this sense that if you’re working in higher education and you’re working with bright and clever people, there can’t possibly be discrimination – and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I think there is still a level of fear in terms of a lack of understanding of what’s going on, and a fear of perhaps saying the wrong thing and being called out for doing that.
I also think that there’s an issue around evidence and data, and that operates in two ways. While I understand why overarching categories are used, it’s vital to disaggregate the data so that we actually know what is happening to young people from different ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, some call for more and more data and evidence as a way of delaying action. Getting the balance right is crucial.
We focused a lot on access and getting young people into university, but we have to think about what happens to them when they get there. The expectation is that you will fit into whatever the culture is in that institution rather than that institution understanding that, by virtue of you arriving, that the culture needs to adapt.
The culture needs to engage and change so that young people who are coming from a variety of backgrounds are able to have a positive experience – that’s what inclusivity means. There are a lot of areas that we need to work on to ensure we have organisational cultures that are truly inclusive and value diversity.
We focused a lot on access and getting young people into university, but we have to think about what happens to them when they get there.
There are also questions about what is taught and who teaches you. The evidence shows more and more clearly that when there is a broadening and a deepening of the curriculum, and the curriculum is made inclusive, students tend to achieve better results. We also need to think about the number of people of colour in academia, where they sit, and the power dynamics in relation to that. The lack of Black professors is appalling and needs to be addressed immediately. Building a pipeline is absolutely key.
Q: What have been your priorities for race equality as Master of University College, Oxford?
A: Before I became Master, University College pioneered what has now become a university-wide programme, Opportunity Oxford. The programme prepares talented UK office holders from unrepresented groups for a successful student career here at Oxford.
In October this year, we launched our Univ Beacon Programme, which we see as the next step. We’re rolling it out this academic year. I hope it will be a success and that others will follow what we are seeking to do. It has three elements to it:
The first element is providing bursaries for undergraduate students from groups that are underrepresented at Oxford. These bursaries will enable these young people, once they step through the door, to maximise their experience once they’re here. They will help with living costs, but also help with support if they are offered unpaid internships or opportunities to travel for academic purposes.
The second element is two fully funded graduate scholarships: one for a master’s degree and the other for a DPhil. These are small numbers to start with, but it’s about building a pipeline. Very often, young people from underrepresented groups will do an undergraduate degree, but will then be unable to afford to participate in further academic study.
The third and final element is a targeted junior research fellowship. This is the first step in an individual’s career in terms of research, which very often leads to the first rung on the ladder of an academic job.
Underpinning this new programme is the fact that although access is vital, it is just the first stage. There are a whole series of steps that organisations have to take. Our work on #ClosingTheGap highlighted the importance of culture and people feeling welcomed in an institution. These are all things that we are continuing to work on: specific actions to build the pipeline and contribute to culture change.
Before taking up her position as Master of University College, Oxford, Baroness Amos was the Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She was the first Black woman to lead a university in the United Kingdom. In her current role, she is the first Black head of an Oxford college.