Race Equality Charter: Advance HE slams ‘misleading’ smears

Chief executive of Advance HE Alison Johns said the charter does not prescribe or mention critical race theory in its literature

The chief executive of Advance HE – the parent organisation of the HE Race Equality Charter (REC) – has attacked “misleading or mistaken” claims by a backbench Tory MP campaign group that the organisation promotes critical race theory. 

On Tuesday 27 July, Advance HE chief executive Alison Johns released a statement that accused detractors of misrepresenting the charter and the organisation she leads.

“A number of claims have recently been levelled at the Race Equality Charter. Many aspects that have been reported are misleading or mistaken and it’s important we clarify these,” she wrote. “The charter is not a campaign or a policy tool, neither is Advance HE a campaigning organisation, we are an educational charity.”

Last week, University Business reported that a group of backbench Tory MPs were leading a defund campaign against Advance HE.

The Telegraph published a story on Friday 16 July, that cited several unnamed academics concerned academic freedom is at risk from the charter. The REC promotes decolonisation and encourages universities to tackle “microaggressions”, the anonymous academics claim. 

On Sunday 18 July, the same newspaper published details of a letter from the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs to education secretary Gavin Williamson demanding taxpayer funding stop to the organisation pending an investigation. The group of 15 MPs argue the REC “contradicts government policy” on freedom of speech, promotes “highly contentious racial theories” and is “counter-productive to societal harmony”. 

In rebuttal, Johns said the opponents of the REC had misrepresented the charter. “It is in no way prescriptive, claims that to participate in the charter universities must decolonise the curriculum or crackdown on micro-aggressions are simply untrue,” she said. “Critical race theory is not prescribed or mentioned in any of the charter guidance. Critical race theory does not form part of the criteria for conferring an award. Applications are assessed through peer review, not by Advance HE.”

There is a risk that some of these claims are counter-productive to the aspects of freedom of speech people are trying to defend
– Alison Johns, Advance HE

Johns argued that “ethos” of the charter was to improve inclusivity so that “all voices can be heard”, adding: “There is a risk that some of these claims are counter-productive to the aspects of freedom of speech people are trying to defend.”  

The chief executive pointed to the “widespread evidence” of racial harassment on university campuses identified in the 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission report as evidence “there is much work to be done to improve inclusivity”. Universities UK last November called for urgent action on racial harassment in higher education, saying that UK universities “perpetuate institutional racism“.

The Telegraph also published details of Advance HE funding – including “£11 million of taxpayer funding since 2016”, according to records obtained from Companies House, and “£27 million from university membership fees”. 

“[W]e are funded through voluntary subscriptions, engagement from our member base or commissioned work,” Johns retorted. “Any surplus we reinvest to benefit the sector. Advance HE is not and never has been directly funded by UK government.” 

Most recent accounts filed by the charity give examples of the sorts of revenue-earning work the charity undertakes. One university commissioned the charity to support it to embed a “best practice student success framework into all its programmes”. Another university asked the charity to deliver a “Creating a Positive Culture in Science and Health programme” to support departmental leadership teams. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) engaged a consortium, of which Advance HE is part, to “provide technical support in relation to HE” in nine middle-income countries. The British Council has used Advance HE to support “HE sector reform and development work in Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Ukraine and Myanmar”. During 2019-20, Advance HE worked on 140 projects, 84 in the UK and 56 overseas. 

“This is a highly complex and sensitive area and that is why it is important to us that we do this work through a balanced and measured approach, that seeks to draw on differing perspectives and narratives,” Johns statement concluded. 

Read more: Reset civic relationships and change language on decolonisation, report tells universities

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