Racial equality in higher education: Is it really one step forward?

Bhavik Patel analyses resistance to the adoption of the Race Equality Charter in universities, identifying both barriers and incentives to change.

Highlighting racial equalities has raised important insights into the failing of universities to create a culturally diverse environment.

One of the first steps that institutions can take to meet such challenges is to obtain the Race Equality Charter (REC), which was established by the Equality Challenge Unit who were created to support equality and diversity for staff and students in higher education. The Race Equality Charter was introduced in 2012 but over the past 8 years of the scheme, only 15 institutions within the UK have obtained a bronze status and in total there are 66 members.

When compared to the Athena SWAN charter for gender equality which was launched in 2005 there are 164 members, holding 815 institutional and department awards between them. Given the significant disparity in the trajectories between these charters, what could be potential barriers and motivations for participation?

A lot of work

On the surface, the REC looks like a far more comprehensive element of work to complete when compared to the Athena SWAN award, given that it requires the institution to collect information on staff and students and create policies that address any discrepancies found. Often the resources to support such a large amount of work is not present.

Additionally, to meet these requirements, there needs to be strong willingness from senior management. Although this process can be difficult and time-consuming, the resistance in making the big jump has been slightly alleviated by a separate movement. Universities UK #Closing the gap has put the microscope on the significant attainment gap between white and BAME students which has led to vice chancellors unilaterally signing up to work with students to eradicate the attainment gap, and ensure every student experiences the same sense of belonging within their higher education journey.

With such work being conducted already for students, the work to complete the REC is not as daunting and therefore we ought to expect that all higher education providers would be members, and commit to achieving bronze status very soon.

Bronze as a baseline

Attaining bronze status is a key step in the process, as this requires the institution to take an extensive audit of their metrics around race equality – and create a clear framework on how to address these challenges in aspiration towards a future silver award. Many will argue that the bar to achieve bronze is set very high and thus the jump to silver and gold is significant and often can feel unassailable.

Many will also feel creating policies for BAME staff and students is far more complex than that for female staff which is why the Athena SWAN awards have made more momentum. This is expected given the significantly lower numbers of BAME staff and students present in higher education. Therefore, as much as there are champions in supporting this movement, we must also see many allies to help create significant change.

And even if policies are put in place, when audits are completed, the findings often highlight significant structural barriers that are common across the majority of all HEIs. 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. This reality is often hard to digest but should not the resistance behind completing the work required for the bronze award.

Indeed, taking the leap to apply for the REC charter is as important as obtaining the bronze award. This process sets in stone an institutional framework that highlights race equality and injustice and therefore work can commence to eradicate this, as that is by far the most important step towards change.

Opportunities and platforms

Commitment to achieving the REC award requires a cultural change and will impact the future shape of the institution for the long-term in how they support the experiences of BAME staff and students. Universities should not be hiding in the closet and creating the opportunities and platforms for race and culture to be shared and embraced.

The REC often provides leverage to this as it encourages all staff to address and confront the culture that exists within HEIs, where open and frank discussions on race are not often conducted. 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. Without a collective effort from white and BAME staff and students, this injustice will never be addressed.

There are always concerns that the REC, as with any equality-based achievement, might be used by institutions for point scoring to gain a competitive advantage over other institutions. The REC award is not a prize, but an acknowledgement of a university’s commitment to addressing race equality and that it has been bold enough to explore the challenges and commit to eradicate racism.

Carrots and sticks

Unfortunately like with many activities, engagement with the REC will only really take off when there is an incentive. Many will highlight that momentum in the Athena SWAN award really took off when UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) launched its expectations of equality and diversity, i.e. showing participation in schemes such as Athena SWAN and Stonewall Diversity Champions.

Although UKRI has updated the stance on equality and diversity, there is yet to date, clear recommendations that HEIs show similar engagement with the REC. Until UKRI endorses the importance of engagement in the Race Equality Charter, there will be no real pressure for engaging with race equality for HEIs, and this will impact staff significantly more than students who through the #closing the gap incentive have seen the biggest change in race equality in recent years. It is without doubt that if URKI and all other research funding bodies, funding charities and societies make engagement with the REC a key recommendation, landmark changes in race equality will not be observed.

So why has this not just happened to the REC, given strong statements on equality and diversity from important funders? This is partly about UKRI’s own performance – ethnic minority principal investigators submitting UKRI grant applications are roughly 10% less likely to be successful that white principal investigators over a sustained period (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Success rates of UKRI submitted applications by ethnicity for principal investigators (PIs) and fellows over a 5-year period.

Unintended consequences

Given the major spotlight on race equality in higher education, what are the possible consequences that may arise in achieving a REC award? BAME staff and students in higher education are already subjected to racism, and in turn this has led to anxiety, depression, and reduced staff wellbeing. Universities often look to overcome such barriers for BAME students through the support of councillors and wellbeing initiatives – but students complain about the lack of staff from BAME communities that they can share their concerns with openly.

This highlights challenges in recruitment and creating clear frameworks to have staff that can support our diverse student community. Safe spaces for both staff and students to openly talk about racism are lacking and recent events have resurfaced these struggles. This still poses a significant challenge for universities.

One of the key aspects in most REC awards will be to create more opportunities for BAME staff to be in senior roles so that their voices can be heard. This is of course challenging given the dearth of BAME staff present and therefore institutions have created leadership training and mentorship programmes to help staff who are disadvantaged. There is no doubt that we often feel at ease around people to whom we can relate, so these programmes can have real benefits for staff from the BAME community.

However, many may see this as action solely to meet metric targets for the REC award and help secure momentum toward silver and gold awards. This therefore can make these schemes be viewed as tokenistic gestures, and instead of integrating staff, cause further segregation and (self-) stigma for BAME staff. As much as a framework is needed in addressing race inequality and injustices, the approach to this be handled appropriately.

BAME staff are few and far between, and often when actions from the charters are being addressed, the microscope falls on them. This is when, more than ever, a strong network of allies can be critical in helping drive change for the better so that our community in HEIs provides equity for staff from all minorities and creates a welcoming inclusive culture.

Overall the REC award on the surface looks like a major challenge and even through the barriers seem significant and incentives are not so clearly present, the journey in learning about race equality within an institution can be rewarding – and can set in stone a movement that will create a better and inclusive higher education sector for everyone as best practice is shared.

3 responses to “Racial equality in higher education: Is it really one step forward?

  1. “BAME staff are few and far between” – I’m trying to understand what the levels of representation should be within HE. The UK is 86% White, 14% BAME, yet according to HESA:

    “Of academic staff with known ethnicity, 17% were Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) in 2018/19, an increase from 16% in 2017/18”

    What would be the ideal percentages (across all grades of course)? Should the numbers be representative of the general UK population? My sense from this article is that we need to boost numbers of BAME staff (and students), but I don’t understand to what levels.

  2. While the ethnic minority population in the UK is 14%, the minority population within universities is a lot higher than that. Demographics within universities are not representative of country demographics.

    The ludicrous acronym BAME is also used to mask significant underepresentation of black academics & mentors. Universities might hire Asian academics but they are unlikely to provide the pastoral support & mentoring needed with black students which allows them to thrive @ undergrad, through graduate school, into academia & up on to the higher levels of academia.

    I take it you are Nigerian, as I am. What I know is that 1st gen Nigerians in the US & UK are largely ignorant of historical issues faced by indigenous black people in the West & how this impacts contemporary outcomes because We are able to do things many others struggle with.

  3. Thank you Dipo for your considered reply. This still leaves me feeling uncomfortable that we are using the idea of demographic representation as a benchmark for HE, as appears to me to be the case for this and other articles. As you say, Black academics and students are underrepresented in general in the HE sector, but White academics and students are represented broadly in line with UK demographics.

    So then the argument becomes one of reducing the numbers of Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students, as they are heavily overrepresented in HE, and boosting numbers of Black staff and students in order to bring it closer to the UK as a whole.

    But is that what we would really be arguing for, because that is not what I take away from articles such as this?

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