Prejudice, unconscious bias, microaggressions: racism takes many forms in higher education

A third of college staff from minority groups say their contributions have been minimised based on their race or ethnicity

In the past two decades, the Irish higher education sector has seen a significant shift from consisting of largely nationally focused institutions, catering primarily to school leavers, to internationally connected institutions with diverse student bodies of all ages and backgrounds. Along with this change, higher education institutions (HEIs) have seen a growing ethnic diversity in both their student and staff populations, a development reflective of Ireland’s changing population.

It is now just over two years since the Higher Education Authority (HEA) conducted a ground-breaking National Race Equality Survey of staff in higher education institutions. To mark this, the first HEA national race equality conference was held last week at the University of Galway. The conference brought key stakeholders together to highlight the structural, institutional and historical dimensions of racism which have informed past and current practice in HEIs and the societies in which they are situated.

Most importantly, the conference saw the launch of the anti-racism principles for Irish higher education institutions, which aim to harness the power of our HEIs to be forces of positive change in Irish society by actively embedding a culture of race equality in the higher education sector.

Based on those who responded to the HEA survey carried out in 2021, there is clear consensus across higher education staff that “race inequality exists in Irish higher education”. Furthermore, respondents from minority ethnic backgrounds emphasised that it is vital to acknowledge that race inequalities emerge through microaggressions, and not only through overt racism. Responses in the survey pointed towards subtle forms of inequality, prejudice, unconscious bias and microaggressions which affect the daily lives of staff from minority ethnic groups. Given the changing dynamic of the Irish population, it is vital to ensure that everyone feels represented and seen as valued members of our college communities.


While work is under way, there is more to be done to advance race equality across the sector. A third of staff from minority ethnic groups (34 per cent) who responded to the 2021 survey reported that they have had their contributions minimised at work based on their race and/or ethnic background. This is in stark contrast to only 4 per cent of white-Irish respondents experiencing the same. Survey results also showed that 49 per cent of respondents from minority ethnic groups have experienced negativity from their colleagues when raising race-related issues at work; these respondents note that raising matters of race/ethnicity causes a discomfort in colleagues and senior management. Research has shown that staff may ignore and diminish conversations about race to avoid this discomfort and shame.

Through its focus on anti-racist initiatives, the HEA wants to encourage an open dialogue on race inequality and anti-racism, to move past feelings of discomfort and to avoid simply embedding a reference to race equality in broader HEI policies on equality, diversity and inclusion.

The HEA has been leading on work in this area since 2020, when HEIs were first required to provide data on the ethnicity of their staff. In October 2021, the HEA published the landmark report Race Equality in the Higher Education Sector, authored by Dr Marta Kempny and Dr Lucy Michael, which, through an analysis of the survey results, offered an important evidence base for national policy, as well as recommendations to the higher education sector.

In order to build on this report, the HEA published a race equality implementation plan in September 2022 with a view to advancing this work across the sector. Key actions included the development of a national statement on race equality in higher education, the hosting of an annual conference and the development of institutional action plans.

Much work has been undertaken at local level to complement national actions led by the HEA. Notably, in November 2021, RCSI was the first university to publish a race equality action plan, followed by TU Dublin’s plan of change for race equity. Some other examples include the establishment of a committee in University of Galway to lead on the development of its race equality framework and action plan; University College Cork’s race equality forum, which offers a safe discussion space for black and minority ethnic staff and students; and Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art Design and Technology’s anti-racism training, which was provided to 70 per cent of first year students in 2021-2022. Higher education staff have also led and advised the HEA on race equality work through the Athena Swan Ireland intersectionality working group.

An important takeaway from recent HEA reports on gender and race equality in the Irish higher education sector is the need to address the intersection of inequalities. Intersectionality refers to the manner in which different forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. Advancing any equality is reliant on progress on a range of factors, including gender and race equality.

The key next step will be the endorsement of the anti-racism principles over the coming weeks and months by HEI presidents. By signing them, institutions are agreeing to uphold the principles, to embed a commitment to race equality as part of their institutional culture and strategic priorities, and, perhaps most importantly, to acknowledge that race inequality and racism exist in Irish higher education. The HEA will be working alongside the sector to advance this vital work and to progress to a more equitable and inclusive higher education sector.

Laura Austin is a senior executive officer with the Higher Education Authority and leads the organisation’s work on gender and race equality in the higher education sector.

This article was written prior to the publication last Tuesday of the National Action Plan Against Racism, which contains actions assigned to the higher education sector that align with this ongoing work.