As the diversity agenda in this country becomes more and more mainstream, companies, governments, universities and institutions of all kinds are learning to talk the talk very effectively. They monitor BME (or BAME), LGBTQ, and disabled recruitment and retention, satisfaction and promotion. All of this is at least in part a response to the Single Equality Duty which requires institutions to take all reasonable steps to facilitate participation by minority groups. This is all fine: it’s certainly better than not thinking about minorities at all. But these labels, I suggest, are quite tricky: for the busy CEO or Vice Chancellor, they represent an effective shorthand, I understand that, but the truth is that no one actually identifies as LGBTQ, or BME, and disabled people are so diverse in the consequences and issues around their disability that they, I am sure, resent being lumped together with quite such ease. After all the needs and priorities for a student or prospective student with mental health issues are going to be markedly different from a student in a wheelchair’s requirements.
LGBTQ is a happy and ever-expanding acronym that now spans a wide range of people with a wide range of barriers to participation. I may be gay, but I am hardly going to be put off applying to Oxford because I am worried that my gender identity won’t be recognised or there won’t be a group of people like me – in fact, given that Oxford has double the nationwide average of gay people I might be encouraged to apply by statistics. That picture looks much less rosy for a trans* applicant. BME is perhaps the most difficult acronym we currently use: I would argue that it lumps people together in a seriously unhelpful way and masks major variations like nationality, religion, cultural praxis and general patterns of educational attainment within a specific ethnic community (e.g the sharp difference between Afro Caribbean and Anglo-Indian average educational achievement).
In short, the danger is, I think, that we professionalise and overuse these acronyms as a means to demonstrate our compliance with the law and our desire to foster diversity, and in doing so we come to think that all BME or LGBTQ people are the same and that there are people who can easily represent everyone contained within those descriptors. There are a wide range of potential access issues that are specific to some within BME, and some very sensitive ones for some people within LGBTQ – there are certainly serious issues that may hinder applications from disabled people. There are though, in all three cases, few commonalities that would apply to everyone described by those terms. In my view, this is similar to the situation with state schools: if we take state school origin as a blunt indicator for “widening participation”, we may look good to OFFA and the Secretary of State but we will be ignoring the fact that many of our “widening participation” students come from wealthy backgrounds and attended Home Counties grammar schools with exiguous proportions of students on free school meals. Let’s call spades spades, use these terms sensitively and not hide from the real challenges that face those working in widening participation and access to Oxford for minority young people of all kinds. We don’t do ourselves any favours by hiding behind acronyms and we don’t help any potential applicants either.