Growth in HEIs signing up to the Race Equality Charter

Ten universities became signatories to the charter over the last academic year, but why have so many others been reluctant to commit to a framework for overcoming barriers standing in the way of minority ethnic staff and students?

Momentum appears to be slowly gathering behind the Race Equality Charter (REC).

The REC’s creators, Advance HE, told University Business that 10 universities signed up to the charter over the last academic year.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that, of all the higher education institutions (HEI) in the UK, only 66 are members of the initiative. And, of those, only a quarter have been awarded bronze status for their efforts to implement ‘a framework through which institutions work to identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of minority ethnic staff and students’.

Given the altogether higher number of HEIs voicing their backing for racial equality in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, why have so relatively few taken the step to formalise their support by signing up to the REC?

The charter was introduced in 2012 with an aim ‘to improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education’.

From the beginning, the REC showed itself to be rather more than a tick box exercise. Of the 21 institutions that participated in the year-long pilot, only eight successfully applied for a bronze level award.

We still have a long way to go to tackle racial inequalities throughout our university community – University of Liverpool vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Janet Beer

The scheme was rolled out across the sector in 2016, with a further nine HEIs subsequently gaining a bronze award.

Part of the reluctance to sign up to the REC may be attributable to its complexity, according to Professor Bhavik Patel of the University of Brighton.

He contrasts the take-up of REC with the Athena SWAN Charter, another initiative from Advance HE (formerly the Equality Challenge Unit), instigated in 2005 to promote the advancement of gender equality.

“On the surface, the REC looks like a far more comprehensive element of work to complete,” he wrote on earlier this month. “Often the resources to support such a large amount of work are not present.”

Professor Kalwant Bhopal, director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education at the University of Birmingham, agrees that the REC has been impacted by the earlier initiative.

Writing in a paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute last September, she praised the REC for “providing a framework through which difficult conversations can take place”, but added:

“Because the Athena SWAN Charter has existed for some 11 years longer, and because it is tied to medical research funding, [it] is often both chronologically and hierarchically the top priority for higher education institutions in equality, diversity and inclusion work.”

Without a collective effort from white and BAME staff and students, racial inequalities will never be addressed – Professor Bhavik Patel, University of Brighton

Professor Bhopal also cited evidence from the British Academy “to suggest that gender has taken precedence in policy making in higher education”, with geography and demography playing a key role in determining racial equality’s importance:

“Gender was seen as a universal issue by respondents [to the British Academy’s research], in contrast to race which was seen as only a concern where racial diversity already exists. There is a risk here that white-only academic spaces are perpetuated by the myth that this is the natural or given state of a particular academic space, and should only be more diverse, paradoxically, if it already is diverse.

“While institutions can claim to be working on structural inequality by focusing time, resources and attention on gender equality, there is little or no imperative to shift the focus to uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in higher education. When race is introduced, so too is a weariness with the equalities agenda, an economising logic for diversity work, and justifications for inequalities more universal or more deserving than those of race.”

For Professor Patel, engaging with the REC is at least as important as any awards that may follow.

“With a lack of BAME staff in HEIs – and specifically in leadership positions the ability – to meet certain metrics may even take a decade of change to manifest,” he said. “This reality is often hard to digest.”

“Taking the leap to apply for the REC charter… sets in stone an institutional framework that highlights race equality and injustice and therefore work can commence to eradicate this; that is by far the most important step towards change.”

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The University of Liverpool announced on July 8 that it was to join the charter.

“We still have a long way to go to tackle racial inequalities throughout our university community,” said vice-chancellor, Professor Dame Janet Beer.

“Our attainment gap in good degree outcomes for BAME students and the underrepresentation of BAME staff in senior posts at the university must be tackled, as must any cases of racism and discrimination on campus.

“These are nationwide issues, but we have a collective responsibility to do better for our whole community.”

Another recent signatory, the Open University, has announced that it is applying for a bronze award.

“The OU is, by definition, ‘open’, so it is important that we are one of the earlier adopters of this programme and find ways to improve,” it said.

“We know that the OU has work to do in this area and the REC, like Athena SWAN and the Disability Standard, offers us a proven framework to help address institutional barriers to staff and student success.”

While institutions can claim to be working on structural inequality by focusing on gender equality, there is little or no imperative to focus on race and racism in higher education – Professor Kalwant Bhopal, University of Birmingham

What has become clear is that change will not come from good intentions alone. For example, as we reported last month, at the current rate of advance, it would take 52 years for BAME participation in postgraduate research to match its equivalent proportion at undergraduate level.

Thus, the need for substantive frameworks like that offered by Advance HE.

“One real important aspect that the REC has brought about is the ability for all staff in HEI to have dialogue on how to address racial inequalities,” said Professor Patel.

“Without a collective effort from white and BAME staff and students, this injustice will never be addressed.”

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