Agents of change: inclusivity in academia

Covid-19 has exposed a number of global inequalities and is set to deepen them further. Can higher education and academic research help turn the tide? Sally Wilson draws on findings from Emerald Publishing’s Global Inclusivity Report 2020 to tackle topics of social mobility, class divides and inequalities, from an academic perspective

Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus long-standing inequalities linked to race, gender, class, income, education, health, and technology. The pandemic’s disruption to education, for example, has had an unequal effect on society, particularly impacting disadvantaged groups that lack access to a computer and/or reliable internet.

In the UK, for instance, the class divide within education has plagued headlines for months. Over the summer, the scrapping of its A-level exams for those leaving high school in favour of a marking algorithm sparked uproar when the new system downgraded close to 40% of grades submitted by teachers, with suggestions that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to have their grades marked down. Such issues reinforce the UK education system’s long-standing inequalities. A 2018 study by educational charity, the Sutton Trust, found that access to the best universities is not only determined by attainment but factors including where a student lives and the school they attend. The Access to Advantage report revealed that 42% of all Oxbridge places go to private school students, even though just 7% of the UK school population attend such schools.

Universities playing their part

Inequalities in education persist worldwide and many universities are working to improve the representation of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or first-generation students, in line with their commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Business Schools have a pivotal role in reducing inequalities because of the high number of MBA graduates who go on to hold leadership positions within companies. Many Business Schools recognise their responsibility in encouraging diversity and have introduced measures, such as bias training and targeted recruitment drives, to attract students from underrepresented groups.  

Diverse teams are widely known to be more successful. Research by software firm, Cloverpop, found that diverse groups made better decisions than individuals 87% of the time and that decisions were made twice as quickly. At a time when the global economy and societies around the world are reeling from the impact of Covid-19, Business Schools may be more critical than ever in aiding our recovery and promoting a fairer and more sustainable future for all. 

Class is a major roadblock to inclusivity

Gathering the views of more than 1,000 academics across 99 countries globally and comparing them to those of 1,000 members of the general public in both the UK and US, Emerald Publishing’s Global Inclusivity Report 2020 sought to understand the academic community’s perceptions of inclusivity and the role of research in creating a more inclusive society.

It revealed that class was a barrier to inclusivity (41% of academics cited ‘class’ as a key barrier to inclusivity and this was the fourth biggest global societal issue; see chart below). Poverty and class are largely intertwined meaning those with the least have fewer opportunities to change their circumstances. Education lies within this cycle – the education a person receives is often linked to poverty and class, and those who are regarded as coming from the ‘lower classes’ have less chance of attending colleges and universities. 

Looking at individual countries and regions showed that class is a bigger issue in the UK than anywhere else in the world, where it is the third biggest barrier to an inclusive society (cited by 61%), not far behind poverty and race, both of which were cited by 69%. Class is also regarded as a bigger societal issue for an inclusive culture in Asia. Class is the third biggest issue (45%) behind poverty (61%) and religion (47%). One of the struggles researchers can find here is that institutions operate within a ‘city tier system’, meaning that if the same person did the same piece of research, or attended the same course, at tier-1 and tier-3 city institutions, the tier-1 city research/course can be regarded far better than that of the tier-3 city despite other factors remaining the same.

Closing the gap between intention and action

The inclusivity report looked to uncover how academia can play its part in removing barriers to inclusivity. It found that:

o 52% of academics believe research provides better evidence-based decisions. 

o 25% of academics believe research provides better public awareness. 

o 17% of academics believe research provides better education. 

In addition:

• 86% of academics rate inclusivity as something that is important to them personally, but feel that this is not matched by their institution (68% thought it was important to their institution), or by academia in general (64%), or by funders (50%). 

• 60% of academics cited ‘Biases in recruitment or promotions’ as the main barrier to a fair and inclusive workforce, followed by ‘Manager or leadership attitudes’ (57%) and ‘Too much pressure – career progression’ (46%). ‘Not enough mentoring’ wasn’t far behind, with 42%. 

The view that academia can contribute to inclusivity efforts is backed by similar reports that investigate the barriers of class and poverty. AMBA & BGA’s Poverty and Action study, for example, found that while only 38% of Business School stakeholders believe the business education community is doing enough to help the poorest in society, 75% think Business Schools could make a difference. Of those surveyed, 85% believe the global business community needs to do more but only 28% were able to report that their School is already taking action.

The research suggests that there is a gap between the desire for change, and action. However, this presents academic institutions with a significant opportunity to lead change and drive inclusivity. 

More research into issues around poverty, class and education will help to uncover the actions needed to promote inclusivity. Here, we can see where research and policy could drive institutional change that makes a fairer system for all. 

Does academic culture need to change?

In brief, yes, academic culture does need to change in order to further inclusivity. The research found:  

• Academic culture is not inclusive (55% agreed with this statement)

• Respondents highlighted ways in which that academia can make a difference. These include greater knowledge mobilisation (cited by 67%), more interdisciplinary research (60%), and more international collaboration (51%).

Without diverse voices and views, are we getting the best out of academia? How can we make sure that people from poorer backgrounds or different classes have sufficient space, at all levels? 

Academic culture also has its own workplace inclusivity problems. Bias in recruitment and promotion as well as issues with leadership could be stifling research’s potential to deliver change because this creates an environment that is not as multidimensional as it could be. 

While more than half of academics surveyed didn’t see academic culture as inclusive, an overwhelming majority believe that an inclusive society and workplace can deliver real benefits. 

The role of open gateways

It was clear from the report that academics believe progress on inclusivity relies on getting research into the hands of policymakers and decisionmakers that are able to make changes that can drive real impact. Respondents highlighted the importance of open gateways in driving change quickly and effectively. However, in this sense, there is not yet a
level playing field across the globe, as some areas are further in their open research, data and access journeys than other parts.

Initiatives such as Emerald Open Research (EOR) make SDG research available to all, thereby providing academics with an easy and rapid route to get impactful research into the hands of policymakers. Another key aim of EOR is to help reduce the inequality gap for contributors and research users. Meanwhile, programmes such as Research4Life aim to create more opportunities for those who would otherwise not be able to access scholarly content by providing free or low-cost online access to academic and professional peer-reviewed content.

Sally Wilson is Head of Publishing at Emerald Publishing, where she is responsible for the strategic development of Emerald’s global publishing programme, comprising journals, books and teaching cases.

This article was originally published in Ambition, the magazine of the Association of MBAs (AMBA).

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