_PEOPLE_ Provost


As Professor Michael Arthur prepares to step down as UCL President & Provost, he reflects on how the university has become a champion of inclusion and diversity

Photography Dylan Collard

Photograph of Professor Michael Arthur, the current UCL President and Provost

In 2018, I spoke at an event at UCL celebrating the centenary of UK women’s right to vote and it seemed appropriate to give the final words to the great equal rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst: “We have to free half of the human race – so that they can help to free the other half.” It was important to me, as a white man who is acutely aware of the privileges that status brings me, to reflect that it has always been a cornerstone of the women’s liberation movement that a gender equal society is as good for men as it is for women – and, more broadly, that an unequal society is ultimately bad for everyone, even those of us who benefit from it.

Vote 100 was an opportunity to shine a light on amazing women in UCL’s history whose far-reaching contributions have been kept in the shadows – names we should know and, if they had been men, names we probably would know. It reminded us of the fact that we are still not on an equal playing field, and that justice is unlikely to assert itself naturally; we have to work hard to address the deeply ingrained structures and prejudices in our society that privilege some and disadvantage others.

I joined UCL as President & Provost in 2013 and, as I prepare to leave in autumn next year, there are many things I am proud of and am privileged to have been part of. This is an institution that has always challenged inequality and questioned established orders, and we remain inspired by our radical heritage.

And yet I have to admit that when I first arrived, one of my impressions was that, especially at senior levels, UCL was disproportionately populated by people like me. It was not as unusual as it should have been to be in meetings in which most, if not all, of the attendees were white men.

We have moved some since then and gender balance, in particular amongst my senior team, is visibly moving in the right direction (disparities in gender experience is a more complex issue and one we are also working to tackle).


We now have active staff and student networks, focused on gender, race, LGBTQ+, disability and faith, supported by a system of senior champions. These peer networks are tremendously valuable in supporting each other and in guiding UCL practice and policy.

UCL is a hugely diverse, multicultural and international community, which can sometimes mask the fact that we still have a real problem with under-representation of some ethnic groups across our student and staff body. In particular, in common with the UK university sector as a whole, we have significantly fewer black British postgraduate students and academics than we should expect.

When we look at a career or an opportunity, it is much easier to believe we can get there when we see “people like me” there already. So the fact that a student at UCL is extremely unlikely to have the experience of learning with a black British professor is a major issue. If talented black British students look at our academic community and do not find role models, they are significantly dissuaded from pursuing further study or considering a career in research – a vicious circle.

Over the last five years we have been successful in tackling under-representation of black British students at undergraduate level, recording an increase of 50 per cent thanks to a number of activities targeted at under-represented groups. How do we go about replicating that at postgraduate level in order to ensure we are not losing talent and can start to create that much-needed pipeline of black British academics?

One of our most powerful mechanisms is scholarships, and our scholarships strategy is increasingly focused on promoting equality and diversity. In 2018 we launched the UCL Research Opportunity Scholarships programme, aimed specifically at under-represented BME groups to provide full-time financial support for postgraduate study. This reduces financial barriers and also does something that I think is even more powerful – it says we need you in academia and we know your talent is worth investing in.

This is, as an aside, an equally important message to send to another hugely under-represented group in UK universities – white working-class students. This is an issue that deserves its own focus, so I will simply say that it is something UCL is making a concerted effort to tackle through its widening participation strategy.

We also need to look carefully at the educational experience under-represented groups have when they are here. A small but persistent attainment gap between BME and white UK students at undergraduate level indicates a non-level playing field in either how or what we teach, and that the broader environment may not create a sense of belonging for some groups. We are understanding and tackling that through initiatives such as the UCL Inclusive Curriculum Health Check, a practical checklist covering curricula, assessment and support, and the Liberating the Curriculum Working Group, made up of staff and students who run a range of projects exploring different aspects of an inclusive and representative curriculum.

Finally we need to make sure that early career (and indeed later career) BAME researchers have access to the same formal and informal opportunities, networks and support as their peers. One recent initiative that I’m proud of is the Deans’ Race Equality Pledges – a series of pledges made by some of UCL’s most senior people managers to tackle race equality, ranging from appointing staff with specific responsibility for promoting equality to using Fair Recruitment Specialists. Reports this summer show the Deans’ Pledges are delivering real results, with a clear increase in the proportion of BAME staff at all levels.

So we are working hard to move in the right direction and we must keep our focus. UCL is not separate from wider society or immune from its challenges. The growth the UK and other countries are seeing in nationalism and political polarisation affects us and will impact the lives of staff and students both on and off our campus. More than ever, we need to firmly avow that internationalism is a virtue and diversity is a strength. We must keep moving forward consciously and deliberately or we risk going backwards.

Talent, passion, commitment and motivation are not commodities that are so common that UCL and the world can afford to waste them. We need to be a community in which all brilliant people with a drive to make a difference can thrive. That means that every member of our community should feel they belong here as much as anyone else and that no one feels they must hide aspects of their life or identity for fear of the reactions of others.

For UCL to be true to itself, it must be a place for “people like you” – regardless of who “you” are.

To find out more about Equality, Inclusion and Diversity at UCL visit

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Portico Issue 6. 2019/20