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Irish universities will have to provide breakdown of ethnic diversity among staff each year from December

From the limited data available, there is just one black female professor who is working full time.

Image: Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic

IT WILL BE compulsory for third-level institutions to provide an annual breakdown of the ethnic diversity among Irish academia from December this year, the Higher Education Authority has said.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) said it would be requesting ethnicity data of staff members from higher level institutions each year from this December.

The categories of data that will be requested were chosen in collaboration with higher education institutions through the Athena SWAN Ireland Intersectionality Working Group.

The Group was established in 2019 with an initial goal to develop a way of collecting data on staff and student ethnicity in the Irish higher education sector.

The HEA said that it has also developed a national survey of academic staff “to develop a picture of race equality” across the Irish higher education sector.

This survey is scheduled to run in the final quarter of this year and “will provide important baseline data for planning future initiatives to support ethnic diversity” in the Irish higher education sector.

Report on diversity in Irish academia

Last week, a report published by the British Council in Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy emphasised the urgency of publishing figures on the ethnicity breakdown in Irish academia, in an attempt to highlight and tackle a lack of diversity in the sector.

In response to news that the figures would be collated and published, the Royal Irish Academy and the British Council in Ireland said: “We welcome the statement from the HEA and look forward to working further with them in the future on these important issues. It is really positive to see such progress being made.”

Up until now, Ireland has had no centralised source of a diversity breakdown of Irish professors and lecturers; the limited data available is from university websites and the Higher Education Authority.

Based on that limited data, however, the report says that there appears to be just one full-time black female academic professorial post-holder in Irish academia, and several post-holders from other minority ethnic backgrounds.

The authors of the study highlighted how Ireland has much less data on diversity in academia than is available in the UK.

Dr Ebun Joseph, a Nigerian-Irish lecturer and founder of the first Black Studies module in Ireland, said that the lack of data is a big problem, and can avoid dealing with any diversity issue within an institution.

“We can use data in the UK to show you the percentage, and you can see how big the problem is. It’s easy to capture that data, but [Irish universities could previously] hide behind ‘Oh, we don’t know’.

“They know there’s a problem and they know how powerful statistics are, how powerful data is. They know the number of students who are international students… because they need to collect international fees. So why are they not on top of foreign-born staff?”

Professor Brian Norton of the Royal Irish Academy said that the report is based on the “ad hoc” data available from Higher Education Authority reports, but there is no “systematic collection of data” the way there is in the UK.

Norton said there is no architecture to allow this data collection to take place, but that universities and other third-level institutions could ask their academic staff to self-report. It’s not clear what the exact methodology used by the Higher Education Authority will be.

The HEA said that it has been “actively working in this area” for the past year.

Up to now, this data has not been collected by HEIs for various reasons which can differ from institution to institution, often relating to privacy issues and the sensitivity of the data in question. For this reason, a national statement on the use of ethnicity categories in Irish Higher Education has been published and endorsed by HEIs.

The report

Figures from the UK indicate that 16% of the total UK academic staff identify as black, while there are 27 black female professors in the UK university system.

Figures of that cohort in Ireland aren’t collated. A 2018 study by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the ESRI found that the black non-Irish group are less than half as likely to be employed as the white Irish group.

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Report BAME Source: Race, Ethnicity and Change in Higher Education

Data on the representation of Irish Travellers or other minority ethnic groups within academic staff is not available at a national level but is thought to be extremely low.

The report also found that those from minority ethnic backgrounds feel an immense personal sense of responsibility to push for greater equality and diversity, but this was sometimes difficult to balance with progress to their academic and scholarly careers. 

Campaigning for change was seen to detract from the time and energy they have available for their core academic and scholarly work and subsequent career development.

“Another key finding,” Professor Nolan said, “is a view that the problem is seen to be a problem of those groups themselves rather than a problem of the system.” 

There is some data available on the gender breakdown in Irish universities; research by the Higher Education Authority showed that in 2017, although 51% of lecturers were female, only 24% of professors were women. 

In January this year, it was announced that 45 female-only professorships would be created in an attempt to tackle this, with 20 female-only professorships are expected to be in place by September. 

The process for becoming a professor

Dr Joseph says part of the reason why people from minority ethnic groups aren’t reaching the level of professor is due to the quality of work and time that they are given.

“It’s the pipeline. So in Ireland to become a professor, you have to have a full-time job either as a lecturer, or as an assistant professor or as an associate professor.

“Most of the black academics I know are on temporary precarious contracts, where they bring them in to teach one module. 

We’ll teach one module, so 12 hours and 12 lectures with grades, but you’re not even a part of the university, you’re a contractor. You don’t have a profile, you’re not technically staff. If you’re lucky, you’ll teach two modules.
But if you’re on that path, you’ll never be an assistant professor. And if you’re not an associate professor, or lecturer full time, you cannot be in a position to become a professor.

She said this type of work means that black academics don’t have the same amount of time to do the research necessary that leads to numerous publications, which would be counted in any consideration to becoming an associate professor or a professor.

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