First ever race equality survey shows opportunities exist for Higher Education Institutions on tackling discrimination

Maura O'Shea

By Maura O'Shea

Posted: 18 October, 2021

image of Race Equality report

Irish Higher Education Institutions are collegial workplaces, yet more could be done to address discrimination based on the ethnicity of staff. This is according to the findings of a ground-breaking new survey carried out by the Higher Education Authority, which highlights the critical need for senior management in HEIs to take on a leadership role in improving race equality in higher education.

The survey was carried out by the HEA’s Centre of Excellence for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, which has taken the lead in areas such as gender equality, race equality and tackling sexual violence and harassment in HEIs throughout Ireland.

The aim of the survey was to capture the lived experience of HEI staff in relation to race equality. For the purpose of the survey, race equality was defined as ‘equal representation, equal experiences and equal outcomes of staff from minority ethnic groups.’

Dr Alan Wall, Chief Executive of the HEA, stated: This is a timely report as higher education institutions begin to address any issues of ethnic or racial discrimination that exist on our campuses. Higher education has a role in impacting wider society, and there is now an opportunity for senior figures in the sector to take on a leadership role and act as exemplars as we begin to discuss these issues as a nation.”

Dr Ross Woods, Senior Manager of the HEA Centre of Excellence for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, said: The HEA is committed to taking a proactive approach to tackling all forms of racial and ethnic discrimination in higher education. Now that we have an evidence base, the HEA can work with institutions to prevent rather than react to problems in this area and to keep pace with wider demographic changes in Irish society.”

The survey was conducted in late 2020/early 2021 and all staff working in HEIs in the Republic of Ireland – regardless of ethnic background or nationality – were invited to participate. A total of 3,323 staff in Irish HEIs responded to the survey.

While the HEA has begun to request data on staff by ethnicity, an overall picture of staff ethnic diversity nationally has yet to be formed. However, the ethnic demographics of respondents is broadly in line with CSO data on the general population.

The survey indicates that experiences of collegiality in Irish HEIs are generally positive across all ethnic groups. However, across all groups, a majority agreed with the statement that ‘race inequality exists in Irish higher education’.

The largest group of respondents (72%) described their ethnicity as White Irish. Nearly a fifth (17.5%) described themselves as of White Other background. A further 8.6% described themselves using other ethnic categories. Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi) were 1.7%, Black African were 1.4% and Mixed background were 1.7%. Asian Chinese, any other Asian background, any other Black background, Arabic, Irish Traveller and Roma were less than 1% each. Those who described themselves as Other made up 1%.

The percentage of respondents from minority ethnic groups on permanent contracts was lower than staff from other ethnic backgrounds. Less than 50% of respondents from minority ethnic groups were on full-time contracts.

There was a significant difference between percentage of staff from minority ethnic groups earning less than €60,000 a year (66%) as compared to a lower percentage of White Other (58%) and 45% of White Irish.

The survey results suggest that the percentage of people who earn over €75,000 is the lowest among minority ethnic groups (17%) as compared to 38% of White Irish and 25% of White Other.

While there was awareness of policies on race/ethnicity, it was often noted by respondents that these are embedded and less visible within broader equality policies, such as Dignity at Work and Mutual Respect policy. Some individuals also remarked that there are more policies relating to gender rather than ethnicity.

Respondents also noted that if policies exist, there is no real implementation of these policies and no visible outcomes in the staff body.

Few White Irish or White Other staff reported experiencing racial or ethnic discrimination. Respondents from minority ethnic groups were more likely to have experienced discrimination. Respondents across all groups described reporting and witnessing racial or ethnic discrimination against minority ethnic staff.

Across all groups, many respondents highlighted that they were unaware of any policies or guidelines to support reporting discrimination. Some participants complained that the mechanisms to tackle this were ineffective and HR processes are very inefficient in finding the solution to the problem of racism in the workplace.

Senior leadership in HEIs were most commonly identified as the group most critical to the process of improving race equality in higher education and there is an opportunity for real evidence-informed leadership in this area by HEIs.

Dr Lucy Michael, co-author of the report, noted: “The recommendations made in this report are aimed at improving accountability, creating effective mechanisms for reporting, designing targeted programmes to address structural disadvantage, signposting and awareness.”

Recommendations are made across eight thematic areas – supporting diversity in staff, supporting diversity in student recruitment, making race/equality policies transparent, reporting mechanisms, awareness and training, fostering diversity in HEIs, leadership and data collection.


The collection of staff and student ethnicity data is central to the implementation of the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty, deriving from Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Act (2014). Under this Act, all public Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) must undertake assessment and monitoring and have policies and plans to promote equality, prevent discrimination, and protect the human rights of staff, students and the wider public that are served by the work of the HEIs. The HEA has a legal obligation under the Higher Education Act (1971) to promote equality in the higher education sector.

Of the 3,323 respondents to the survey, 61% were female, 37% were male, 1% were non-binary and less than 1% identified as Other or preferred not to say.


Race Equality in the Higher Education Sector - Analysis commissioned by the Higher Education Authority

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