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Migrants and minorities in higher education – battling embedded inequality

Migrants and minorities in higher education – battling embedded inequality

28 April 21
 | 14 MINS

An academic’s personal reflection on the need to level the playing field for immigrant and minority ethnic staff and students in universities and a call for institutions to be the champion for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

In the past few years, gender inequality has become a matter of urgent action in NUI Galway, in response to the legal action taken by women academic staff in the University.

The heart of the matter was the persistent inequality and pervasive differential in women’s access to opportunities and outcomes.

With the growing attention on gender inequality, there was an attempt to consider more seriously the ramifications of this inequality at all levels. A trend emerged of focusing on remedies to proactively “level the playing field”.

In the rush to deal with the obvious inequalities of opportunity – in representation, outcomes and in pay – the impact of the interweaving of racial, ethnic and class inequalities together with gender, which shapes the lived experiences of women as human beings, was inevitably largely hidden and ignored.

The Athena Swan awards emerged as a template to evaluate the progress by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in 2014. The various levels of award are prized certificates attesting the depth and extent of an institution’s commitment to eradicating gender inequality. With the advent of Athena Swan, an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion infrastructure evolved across the Irish university landscape.

Despite these positive developments, an exclusively gender focused process ignores the issues arising as a result of the interplay between gender and non-gender driven inequalities, an interplay that serves to exacerbate systemic inequalities.

The singular focus of the charter in fact incentivises the aspiring institutions to homogenise women and reduce the problem to one that only considers the categories of male and female in the aggregate.

This process of homogenisation fails to serve the very women who are at the greatest risk of gender inequality, those who have been marginalised by multiple drivers of inequality and who do not have the power, or voice, to resist being lost in a process that is focused solely on gender.

In particular, women in minority ethnic groups and immigrant women of colour remain largely voiceless, confined to the background institutional noise in this statistical process of homogenisation.

There is something innately contradictory in this aggregated, incentive-based, approach to equality. With this approach, the equality distinction is achieved and celebrated with respect to gender while at the same time the intersectional potential for discrimination of minority ethnic communities and people of colour has been ignored and they continue to languish without voice or appropriate representation and with unequal opportunities, and poorer outcomes.

The Covid-19 crisis unravelled these undercurrents in the most open way. The differential impact on the marginalised sections of women, and marginalised people of colour and ethnic minorities in general, highlights the travesty of such homogenisation processes.

Consider the case of unpaid care work, which is unequally borne by women and represents yet another gender-based inequality that has received inadequate attention both in theory and policy responses. There has been a discussion on the unpaid care work burden on women during the Covid pandemic and measures to compensate for the adverse impact that the burden may have on their career.

Ironically, it appears that a global pandemic was required to put a spotlight on the issue that feminist scholars have been talking about for the past 40 years (see for instance Folbre (1981), Miles (1983), Elson (1991), UNDP (1995)).

The unpaid care burden has always existed for women, impacting negatively on their career advancement and general empowerment. In fact, these socially constructed gendered responsibilities in a patriarchal society lie right at the core of unequal opportunities and outcomes for women.

Without deeper probing of the underlying power asymmetries that are embedded in the structures and processes sustaining and perpetuating gender inequality, the incentive-based approach to equality remains rather as a “tool of patriarchy”, á la Audrey Lorde, and as opposed to something that might inspire fundamental change.

But if we take this chance to engage critically and more openly with the structures and processes that perpetuate inequalities, it is a golden opportunity for change for the better.

The Covid-19 crisis and the global debate on structural racism have together brought us to a crossroads. Going back to “normal” as we knew it means accepting our inability to change the system that perpetuates inequalities. But if we take this chance to engage critically and more openly with the structures and processes that perpetuate inequalities, it is a golden opportunity for change for the better.

To achieve equality in the fullest sense, we need to understand the lived experiences of people of colour, minority ethnic and other disadvantaged and marginalised groups. We need to be aware of the challenges faced by them and how that translates into unequal opportunities and outcomes for them.

Being employed here as a non-EU citizen, from the global south, I have experienced the immigration system disadvantaging me in many ways.

Triangulated by the work permit, immigration card (GNIB or IRP) and the famously infamous re-entry visa (recently withdrawn) the immigration system disadvantages the non-EU global south citizen who wishes to travel to Europe or the UK.

The requirement to have three-months validity of the GNIB card after one’s return in order to be eligible for the Schengen or the UK visa means that people with three months left in their immigration cards cannot travel outside Ireland.

All the professional opportunities during that period become lost opportunities. One might wonder why these cards are not renewed three months prior to expiry, instead of the current arrangement whereby you can only renew the cards two weeks prior to expiry.

As a result, the cumulative loss of those opportunities is a real and tangible loss imposed by the immigration system on the non-EU global south academic working and living in Ireland. There are also many other unspoken experiences, untold hardships and undocumented disadvantages silently suffered by the immigrant and ethnic minority staff and students in the university.

While that is external, government policy, the University, championing equality and diversity, can change the environment within.

The University has a responsibility to its immigrant and minority ethnic staff and students to level the unequal playing field. We have an obligation under S(42) IHREC Act 2014 to assess human rights and equality issues and to put plans and actions in place to address those issues, with an ongoing programme of scrutiny and recalibration of such policies.

One difficulty facing us is the lack of hard evidence in this domain. This lack of data highlights the deeply embedded nature of the structural inequalities that permeate the system. This is hardly surprising. Data gathering in the domain of social science is influenced by which lens or conceptual framework or ideology frames one’s view of the world.

In economics, for example, there is very little data on women’s unpaid care work as part of standard economics statistics. This information is not currently gathered by Central Statistics Office (CSO) and other organisations because the informing economic principles do not recognise or frame women’s unpaid care work at home as economic “data”, as it is perceived as not adding value to the economy.

So, the exclusion of  women’s unpaid care work data from the standard economic statistics is a consequence of the way the patriarchal ideology frames our views about the economy.

This is where we as the university community need to reflect, and act. The status quo does not reflect our stated values. We must go beyond showing solidarity in condemning structural racism and engage in a self-critical process of understanding to uncover how structures and processes perpetuate unequal opportunities and outcomes for people of colour and minority ethnic academics, professional staff, and students.

Our values should give us the strength, courage, and wisdom to look beyond the ephemeral benefits offered by the incentives-based approach and work towards a more substantive and transformative change.


Lorde, Audrey. (2007). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (2nd ed.). New York: Crossing Press.

Elson, Diane. (1995). Male bias in the development process. Manchester University Press.

Folbre, Nancy. (1982). Exploitation comes home: a critique of the Marxian theory of family labour. Cambridge Journal of Economics6(4), 317-329.

Miles, Angela. (1983). Economism and Feminism: Hidden in the Household A Comment on the Domestic Labour Debate. Studies in Political Economy11(1), 197-209.

United Nation Development Programme. (1995). Human Development Report.


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