igures released to Exeposé have offered an insight into diversity at the University, revealing that the number of Black, Minority or Ethnic (BME) students has fallen year on year since 2012.
Last year, just 18.6 per cent of the entire student population identified as BME, an overall decrease of nearly 10 per cent since the 2012/13 academic year. The University has not yet released figures for 2015/16.
Furthermore, just 16 per cent (2,410) of undergraduates at the University were BME, although this was a slight increase on previous years. With the percentage varying dramatically per academic college, Humanities fared the worst, with just 6.7 per cent of students identifying as BME.
INTO, a college “designed specifically for international students” according to its website, topped the colleges with 85.5 per cent of their students being BME. The Business School had the second highest percentage with 28.8 per cent.
Although the number of BME undergraduates has increased since 2012/13 (by only 1.2 per cent), the University’s enrolments of their postgraduate counterparts have been falling since 2012/13, from 1,402 to 1,295 in 2014/15.
At Exeter’s sister campus in Penryn, the Flexible Combined Honours course had no BME students enrolled in 2012/13, although this increased to 16.7 per cent the following academic year.
A Freedom of Information request revealed disparities within undergraduate academic grading. BME students scored lower than their white counterparts in 28 out of 39 undergraduate disciplines in 2014/15. The greatest difference was within Computer Science, with BME students scoring an average of ten marks lower, while Human Geography, Mathematics and Sports and Health Sciences saw a discrepancy of six marks.
As a region, the South West has some of the lowest racial diversity rates in England. The University of Bristol had 449 more non-white undergraduates than Exeter last academic year, whereas in the University of Bath, 21 per cent of undergraduates were classified as BME, compared with Exeter’s 16 per cent.
In the 2014/15 academic years only 6.5 per cent of staff at the University were BME, a rise of just 0.3 per cent since 2012. This percentage is, however, in line with the most recent census of Exeter’s population by the Office for National Statistics, which found that 93 per cent of the city’s population is white. At present, the University does not practice positive discrimination, as this is against the law, but recruiters are permitted to use targeted advertising to reach under-represented groups.
According to the University’s most recent biennial Equal Pay Audit conducted in 2014, a white-favoured pay gap of 6.5 per cent amongst Professors was found, although this was believed to be attributable to BME Professors’ shorter length of service within the University – a median length of five years, as opposed to 8 years and 2 months.
Last year, the University was one of 21 UK universities to pilot the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter Mark, which aims to improve representation and progression of minority ethnic staff and students. Focus groups held this year as part of the study found that there was a discrepancy between the photographs on Exeter’s website, which suggest a diverse composition of students, and the reality that the majority of the student population is white middle-class.
A “deficit in cultural awareness” among the student population was also felt. The focus group report suggested that this could be remedied by better financial support from the Guild for campaigns like Black History Month and Black Lives Matter, although there was a general consensus that people in the University are “scared to talk about race”.
In recent years, Facebook initiatives such as ‘I, Too, Am Exeter’ and ‘Spotted: Racism at Exeter University’ have aimed to defeat common misconceptions and highlight BME students’ experiences.
The founder of the ‘Spotted: Racism at Exeter University’ Facebook page, which currently has over 900 likes, echoed the focus group’s findings: “Racism is a contentious and often difficult subject to discuss, but the important thing is that we are discussing it.
“I haven’t been surprised by the number of students contacting the page about racist incidents. The University is largely white and we’re living in the South West, which is also largely white. I think that in a place where there is a minority of people of colour it’s easy for people to not have to think about what they’re saying and it’s easier for them to commit microaggressions, sometimes without even realising it.”
International Students’ Council (ISC) member Karn Chaisrirattanakul, believes that there should be “more campaigns that discourage discrimination amongst ethnicities across campus”. Chaisrirattanakul feels that “the Guild has not put enough effort into promoting diversity”, as, although the group is very active, it is “not as widely known by international students”.
Niharika Aggarwal, a second-year LLB student from New Delhi, who is part of the Asian Society, which organises the Diwali celebrations each year, had a more positive view, however: “The University has promoted diversity extremely well. Living on campus, in University accommodation made me realise how interested people are in knowing about people’s culture, their language and their country. The Guild helps to promote this with the help of various cultural societies. The Guild works hand in hand with us, for example, to host one of the biggest events on campus, Diwali. Last year, we had an attendance of 1,500 people who came from all over the city and University.
“Everyone in the University has been extremely accepting towards me as an international student, be it lecturers, tutors or peers,” she added.
When asked by Exeposé about Guild support for encouraging diversity, VP Welfare and Diversity Naomi Armstrong commented: “The Students’ Guild supports a network of Liberation Officers who represent and support students who identify with one or more protected characteristics. This approach ensures that students can be effectively represented across a range of support needs. I am working with our officers and ISC as part of my manifesto to improve diversity awareness and respect across our campuses.”
Equality and Diversity Manager Dorcas Cowan spoke of the University’s “commitment to supporting students and staff to study and work in an environment that is free from discrimination and promotes equality of opportunity”.
Ian Blenkharn, Director of Education and Student Experience elaborated on these initiatives: “We monitor the proportion of BME students very carefully and are keen to ensure we do more to encourage a more diverse student community. We have recently nominated a new ‘BME Champion’ who works in our Widening Participation team to ensure our activity is inclusive of BME students and we have also entered into new partnerships with organisations such as IntoUniversity and Making the Leap to widen our reach to BME students.”
“Exeter has been a member of the Athena SWAN Charter since 2011 and gained its Bronze institutional award in 2012, while every STEM/M department also now holds an Athena SWAN award.
“The University is also a Stonewall Diversity Champion (Britain’s leading best practice employers’ forum for sexual orientation and gender identity equality, diversity and inclusion) and is a key sponsor of Exeter Pride (including our own ‘Pride on Campus’ events) demonstrating a clear commitment to LGBT equality.”
This week, the ISC will be celebrating Cultural Week from 10.00am to 5.00pm each day in the Forum, with various regional and cultural societies showcasing their traditional food, clothing and customs.
Susannah Keogh & Fiona Potigny, News Editors