Image: Warwick Media Library

Is Warwick unrepresentative of its student body? Investigating positive action on campus

Since the Equality Act 2010 was implemented, attitudes towards inclusivity in workplaces have altered, with a greater focus on closing the gap previously faced by minority groups and women in the hiring process.

The Royal Air Force (RAF), West Yorkshire Police, and UK private schools have made recent headlines following aspects of positive action and discrimination. Last year, The RAF unlawfully discriminated against white male recruits and faced a £1 million payout to its former head of recruitment. At the same time, John Robins, head of West Yorkshire Police, made headlines after calling for a law change that would introduce positive action to bolster the force’s ethnic intake. Meanwhile, private schools across the country actively stood up to positive action measures at UK universities, having felt they were being deliberately disfavoured. The vast pros and cons of various action schemes appear to have sparked widespread debate across the UK.

In 2023, guidance on positive action in the workplace was published, further re-examining how employers should be approaching inclusivity. The Boar News recently polled Warwick students, asking them to reflect on their own interactions with action at university and in the workplace, and whether they felt either had benefited them. 

The University of Cambridge defines positive action as “a range of measures allowed under the 2010 Equality Act” to lawfully and responsibly help those from underrepresented backgrounds.  

Law firm Davidson Morris, as per the 2010 Equality Act, denotes: An employer is permitted to take steps to assist job applicants or employees in circumstances where:  

They are potentially at a disadvantage because of a protected characteristic; they are under-represented in the company or organisation, or whose participation is disproportionately low, because of a protected characteristic; and/or they have specific needs connected to a protected characteristic. 

Failure to comply to these prerequisites constitutes positive discrimination, which is illegal in the UK. 

55.9% of students polled were familiar with the terms positive action and discrimination, with 38.2% being somewhat familiar, and 2% being unfamiliar. Of those who were familiar with the concept, 34.4% felt that positive action and/or discrimination took place at Warwick, with 43.8% being unsure. Examples of positive action at Warwick include ‘reasonable adjustments’ where students with conditions that may affect their academic endeavours receive accommodations or widening participation opportunities. However, some feel that positive action is sometimes less successful in practice than in theory and constitutes unfair treatment. One student told The Boar: “I’m a disabled student, and Warwick treats me like dirt. I haven’t had any positive treatment as a result of my disability, making me more likely to be discriminated against. If anything, quite the opposite. They actively discriminate against me.”  

They continued: “I cannot speak for other minorities, but as a disabled person, the idea that Warwick treats disabled people positively [or] takes positive action is laughable.”  

My straight friend James says he’s going to say he’s gay for a few of his job applications to see if that makes him more likely to get the job

Warwick student

In 2023, Disabled Students UK (DSUK) “carried out the largest survey yet of disabled students in higher education in the UK”. The study reflected an increase in advancements, but also a continuing need for support. Mette Anwar-Westander, Chief Executive Officer of DSUK, reflected on the survey, commenting that “in many ways the law is not being enforced”. In the 2023 Access Insights Report, 64% of disabled students polled were found to not have the adjustments made that had been agreed to by their universities.  

Students have also expressed concern about their position in workplaces due to positive action. They worry that, though they feel they have benefitted from it, it cannot be known if the changes will be long-standing. One placement student at Warwick told The Boar: “I’d say that most companies are focused on diversity to an extent, but more to improve their appearance. Once they have a couple of women [or] non-white people … they will probably stop actively implementing [positive action].” Going on to find that positive action may also inadvertently create imposter syndrome for those from marginalised groups, they noted: “The company I work at only has a couple of women. It does mean I don’t really know whether I got the position due to my own merit or just to improve diversity.”  

Another pressing problem is positive-presenting entry-level opportunities initiatives that seem like they will create positive action in workplaces, but only really end up delaying systemic, non-inclusive behaviour. For people from BAME backgrounds, insecure work has risen by 132% since 2011, with many undertaking it “frequently met with discrimination during the recruitment process”, and those who manage to secure positions are later finding themselves facing adversity as “BAME workers report being unfairly disciplined and dismissed”. This reflects the fact that those who implement positive action in the recruiting process are sometimes only temporarily preventing discrimination.  

Since the Black Lives Matter movement, pressure has been put on companies to hire more diversely. However, according to a recent report by the BBC, layoff policies “that use position and tenure [as] deciding factors for cost-cutting” mean that discriminated groups end up being further disadvantaged. This was what ignited the 2018 lawsuits against major conglomerates including Google, Uber and Riot Games. 

Positive action initiatives also risk being abused by groups they are not intended to benefit. Intelligent surveyed 1,250 white American students, 34% of whom admitted to lying about their race to further their chances of being accepted into university. Some Warwick students have also expressed resentment at positive action initiatives, one of which said: “I can see why positive [action] exists, but I feel like it limits my options as a white female, because I search for internships on Creative Access and 1/2 of them are only looking for black and disabled applicants. My straight friend James says he’s going to say he’s gay for a few of his job applications to see if that makes him more likely to get the job.”  

Of those polled by The Boar, 38% revealed that positive action makes them feel nervous or unsettled about getting a job as a postgraduate, with a further 18% being unsure.  

Harriet Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, brought forward the Equality Act 2010. A main aim of the act was: “Extending positive action measures to allow employers to make their organisation or business more representative.”  

The Boar found that 71.25% of English and Theatre Studies students were women in the 23/24 academic year, however women only accounted for a third of senior staff in the department. 

As part of our investigation, The Boar endeavoured to find out if the increased diversity Warwick is aiming for within the student body is being reflected within its faculties. Looking at the English and Comparative Literature Department, The Boar found that 71.25% of English and Theatre Studies students were women in the 23/24 academic year, however women only accounted for a third of senior staff in the department. 

The University’s English and Comparative Literary Studies faculty, which proports to lead the university’s widening participation agenda, is clearly unrepresentative of its student body.  

Since 2015, the University of Oxford has approved the use of specific positive action measures in relation to staff, including: institutional targets for the representation of women and ethnic minorities in governance bodies and in senior roles.  

This begs the question: is Warwick falling behind other universities? When polled as to whether universities should use positive action in their admissions and/or hiring processes, 35.3% responded yes, with 41.2% unsure, and 23.5% said no.  

The Boar also aimed to find out students’ personal experiences and interactions with positive [action]. Some have had fruitful interactions with it, commenting that positive [action] has “helped greatly in their academic and extracurricular activities”.  

Others suggested that without the implementation of positive action they wouldn’t be at university, with one student commenting: “I may not have got into my first-choice uni at all eight years ago if it weren’t for positive action resulting in a contextual data offer because of my disadvantaged educational background.”  

“I think some societies have been created to promote collaboration, but instead end up excluding people who feel like they don’t fit the target market”

Warwick student

20% of those polled felt that they had in some way been aided by positive action in securing a place at a university or in the workplace. In terms of social experiences at Warwick, student responses were more varied. Of those polled, 41% acknowledged that they had encountered positive action being used by societies at Warwick. Within that subset, 27% felt they had, at some time, been excluded from these societies or events because of positive [action]. One student commented: “I think some societies have been created to promote collaboration, but instead end up excluding people who feel like they don’t fit the target market.”  

Whilst universities in the UK inform decisions on positive action in workplaces, the influence of the US is also instrumental in how institutions approach inclusivity. With the Supreme Court ruling that “race can no longer be considered as a factor in university admissions” will the UK follow suit? Or will positive action continue to be implemented? Whilst this is uncertain on a broad scale, at Warwick, the objectives of the University’s Social Inclusion Strategy include “[increasing] the diversity of Warwick’s staff and students” by 2030, as well as becoming “a leader in social inclusion”, all of which potentially indicates a furthering of positive action at the University.  

Judging by feedback from The Boar’s poll, whether students are hoping for this to happen is hard to say. Responses were varied to the question of whether students perceived positive [action] to be a force for good? Though 26.5% said that positive action is a force for good, many were indecisive. In the 2023 UK government guidance to employers regarding positive action in the workplace, it is clearly remarked that employers should be conscious that using positive action may exclude other groups in workplaces, leading to potential backlash within organisations as a whole. Whilst some students may have concerns about positive action, the Social Inclusion Strategy suggests Warwick is aiming to embrace it, along with its benefits and drawbacks. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.