Race Equality Charter: universities must be ‘candid’ about challenges

A review of the Race Equality Charter – which is now five years old – revealed obstacles to progress

Efforts within universities to achieve a Race Equality Charter (REC) award often founder because of an inability to be “frank [and] candid about the issues […] faced in respect to race inequality” in action plans.

The finding come from a 184-page review of the REC commissioned by its custodians Advance HE. Reviewers examined the ability of the REC to improve racial equality in UK HE.

Surveys, interviews and focus groups with people working in universities revealed that many institutions that failed to achieve a REC did so because of “insufficient acknowledgement of race inequalities”, limited staff expertise, and poor action planning.

Asked what would help an institution make progress towards a REC award, most respondents cited “greater buy-in” from colleagues, followed by additional staff resources, and more senior-level support.

There are 17 REC award holders and 79 institutional members – thus far, 40 applications for an award have been made. Advance HE reported nine new members following the death of George Floyd last year.

The report comes a year after Universities UK concluded that the sector “perpetuates institutional racism“.

The most recent statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) suggest there are only a few hundred black professors and senior academics employed in UK universities – prompting the University and College Union to describe the pace of change as ‘glacial’.

The auditors identified issues with the design of the charter and with university processes. The report was researched and written by Freya Douglas Oloyede, Dr Ashlee Christoffersen and Tinu Cornish. It is the second part of an ongoing review of the REC five years after its launch.

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said: “It is intolerable that students or staff in our sector are victims of racism or discrimination, deliberate or unconscious, on account of their race and ethnicity.

“We must do everything in our power – and it is in our collective power – to drive this out and create inclusive communities throughout higher education and research institutes.”

Report recommends charter reform

The report found that the framework had supported university participants in addressing inequality, with a small poll of award holders suggesting that all had achieved some impact to improve racial inequality in their workforce and student body. The largest proportion reported progress in raising awareness of racial inequality in the institution, followed by improving representation among academic staff.

Four out of six institutions reported an increase in the proportion of professors identifying as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) – and five out of six saw a small increase in the proportion of BAME staff overall. However, black and female staff appear to benefit less from university racial equity work – prompting reviewers to call for award holders in future to submit data disaggregated by gender and ethnicity and “a dedicated REC principle addressing anti-Blackness”.

Some respondents identified issues with the process that requires universities to submit an award application within three years of joining – with a majority feeling more universities would participate if they could access support for longer before embarking on application. Reviewers made 29 recommendations to Advance HE, relating to expanding the pool of professional award peer reviewers, increasing networking opportunities between members, and creating “a race equality package for institutions to be able to engage […] without having to commit to REC”.

Advance HE welcomed the report – and said it would help it “ensure REC members are best supported in their race equality efforts”. It said it would develop new ways to “support member institutions to foster a greater understanding of race and racism, and how structural inequalities manifest in higher education” and provide greater support for institutions with “effective action planning”.

Universities resistant to ‘difficult conversations’

The consultants also highlighted issues within universities that may hamper sector-wide progress on racial equality, including staff resourcing, recruitment and promotion processes, and resistance to “difficult conversations”.

Reviewers held focus groups with black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, academics, and professional services staff from universities that have – or are applying for – a REC award. Reviewers also conducted an online survey, which attracted 77 responses from 39 of the eligible 75 universities, and interviews with 11 key stakeholders.

A survey of REC leads found 18.5% work more than 20 hours per week on equality work, with a further 29.6% working between 10-20 hours; 66.7% agreed that universities do not commit enough resources to support EDI staff. Nearly seven in 10 non-members polled identified time demands on staff as the biggest obstacle to their university joining the REC. The review said that participants acknowledged “the data requirements, though extensive, are needed”, but feared the work fell disproportionately on BAME staff to undertake. Advance HE should “provide guidance on the BAME: white ratio” in university teams to ensure “substantial BAME representation while avoiding overburdening BAME staff”.

The review spoke to participants in universities who had experienced resistance to discussions of racism in the institution: 58% of non-members reported that staff were unwilling or not confident to talk openly about the issues. During conversations with award holders, the reviewers found resistance to REC “at all levels, from senior management to human resource departments”.

A survey respondent – who works in a university with a Bronze REC award – told researchers: “Where there is already that resistance to start with, it just continues and even though we had… really detailed feedback on our application and areas for further improvement…and…reported that back to the vice-chancellor…that resistance still stays there… every single meeting I’ve had to go to since that I have to explain the rationale for doing everything again.” The report concluded that a lack of institutional commitment and leadership meant REC efforts flagged.

Reviewers spoke to REC panellists – the people that judge applications – who warned that unsuccessful applications were often not “frank or candid about the issues the institution faced with respect to race inequality”. Universities were often better at identifying the problem than the solutions, panellists felt. Some suggested that the REC would be more successful if, like Athena SWAN, research grants linked to charter status.

Participants also cited concerns with university promotion and hiring processes. One academic participant told the review they knew of colleagues hiring white staff for new ‘interim’ roles not advertised, which then became permanent roles. White and black academics were assessed differently by the department promotions panel, respondents felt, and “differentially encouraged to apply for… roles at higher grades”.

Kathryn Harrison-Graves, Advance HE director for membership and accreditation, said, “This report is extremely welcome and we are very grateful for the input of everyone who took part in the Phase 2 consultation. A great strength of the REC is that it is tailored for and by the higher education sector, and the insight gained from colleagues’ experiences with the Charter will be invaluable to shaping its future.

“We are keen to ensure that the sector’s voice remains at the heart of REC’s future development, and are happy to announce the creation of a new REC Governance Committee, to inform and oversee the ongoing and future development of the Charter.

“It’s never been more important to ensure the sector is effectively supported to address racial inequalities, as evidenced by the depressing data in the recent HESA staff statistics report. Though it is encouraging this year to see a renewed energy, determination and commitment in the sector to drive out racism and discrimination, galvanised by a world-wide condemnation of racial injustice. The REC is an excellent framework to help that work; but it is just the beginning, it’s using it and the action that follows that really matters.”


Read more: London Metropolitan University: ‘Black and minoritised voices will be at the table at every level’

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