International Global Chair project champions equity in Higher Education

Prof Penny Jane Burke is one of our Global Chairs, and now UNESCO Global Chair i
Prof Penny Jane Burke is one of our Global Chairs, and now UNESCO Global Chair in equity, social justice, and HE. Image: University of Newcastle, Australia.

The result of an international academic collaboration, led by researchers at Bath, hopes to spark a deeper conversation about access and equality in science.

A new international project, co-led by researchers from the University of Bath’s Department of Education and Faculty of Science, hopes to break down some of the barriers which exist when it comes to academic career progression for underrepresented groups.

Co-led by Professor Andrea Abbas (Department of Education) with Professor Momna Hejmadi (Associate Dean, Faculty of Science), the project is the result of an international collaboration involving University of Bath Global Chair, Professor Penny Jane Burke. It is announced today to coincide with International Women’s Day (Wednesday 8th March).

Prof Burke - who is Global Innovation Chair of Equity and Director of the Centre for Excellence in Equity in HE (CEEHE) at the University of Newcastle, Australia - has been Global Chair at the University of Bath since 2020. This January she took up the prestigious title of UNESCO chair in Equity, Social Justice and HE.

During her time working with the University, Prof Burke has provided leadership to support equity and excellence in HE. Drawing on her research - and a project designed by the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) and the College of Engineering, Science and Environment (with Prof Regina Berretta) - she has advised on methods and approaches to collaborative research. These will be drawn upon by the team as they develop practices to improve access and career progression by gender, race and class for academics working specifically across the sciences and in engineering: STEM subjects.

In the UK, career progress in gender equality remains limited despite initiatives such as Athena SWAN. Advance HE statistics for 2021 show that women remain in the minority among professors (28%), despite forming the majority among first degree undergraduate students (56%). The University of Bath Athena SWAN 2019 data showed increases in female representation among both STEM professors (8%) and faculty staff (6%).

As a result of the collaboration, a new international project will shortly get underway involving academics from Bath, the University of Ghana, and the University of Newcastle (Australia). From next month (April 2023), teams will begin surveying students and staff across the sciences to understand more about their own experiences of inequity.

In time, they hope their findings can be used help unlock some of the more intractable barriers which persist. Outputs will include dissemination events for staff and students at the three institutions, as well as new models and approaches to improve equity in science which can be shared nationally and internationally.

Commenting, Professor Abbas from the University of Bath’s Department of Education said: -This collaborative, interdisciplinary and international project has emerged as a result of Professor Burke’s Global Chair position at the University of Bath. Throughout the pandemic, we worked together to develop, plan and execute ideas for this, and it is a significant achievement to now be launching this new project, which will also form part of Professor Burke’s UNESCO Chair position. We believe it can lead to important breakthroughs in improving equity in science here in the UK and internationally.-

Professor Hejmadi from the Faculty of Science added: -This is a pressing area of work for all HE institutions in the UK and internationally. I am encouraged at the progress we have made with Professor Burke’s leadership as our Global Chair and I am optimistic that this project can help us build on the cross-institutional and cross-cultural understanding across UK, Australia, Ghana and Egypt, in informing policies promoting gender equity in STEM disciplines.-

Commenting on her UNESCO Chair position for the University of Newcastle, through which she will expand this work, Professor Burke said: -The research we have been undertaking at CEEHE aims to mobilise higher education to address the challenging conditions that undermine progress toward reducing inequalities, gender equality and quality education for all.

-As a UNESCO Chair, we will have the collaborative networks and resources to build on the work we have already done to make a real difference to communities facing social, cultural, political and environmental injustice. We will be able to challenge the concrete barriers and insidious inequalities that greatly undermine access to and participation in higher education and significantly improve the life chances of communities navigating social inequality, including victim-survivors of gender-based violence.-