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Supporting evidence-based action on racial inequality is not “wokery”

The Race Equality Charter is not "wokery", it is a tool to help universities in developing their own approach to racial inequality. Alison Johns of Advance HE responds to the critics in government and parliament
This article is more than 2 years old

Alison Johns is chief executive of Advance HE

Few would contest that UK higher education is amongst the very best university systems in the world. Unlocking our full array of talent will enhance it.

This is why the sector is right in its determination that all its staff and students are given an equal opportunity to flourish; and why we must tackle inequalities, drive out racism in the sector and ensure our institutions are truly inclusive.

While not all commentators agree that there is racism in UK higher education, the evidence says otherwise – and we, as a sector, have a legal and moral duty to do something about it.

Identifying the problem

In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission uncovered ‘widespread evidence’ of racial harassment on university campuses and Universities UK has since issued guidance on tackling racial harassment in higher education. In degree awarding, we know from our survey work with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), that while black students are generally more engaged with their studies, they are consistently scored lower: 86 per cent of white students qualify with a first or 2:1 – for black students the figure is 66.3 per cent (The Office for Students has called on universities to tackle this gap.) Similar disparity is evident with staff, where 89.1 per cent of professors are white, and 0.7 per cent are black; you are twice as likely to be a professor if you’re a white academic than if you are black.

The Advance HE/HEPI Survey also found that though two out of three students felt their institution is committed to eliminating racial inequalities, only 53 per cent of black students hold this view. A spotlight on specific student groups showed that black students also have a less positive academic experience than white students.

This is wrong.

No prescriptions

It’s also wrong to characterise efforts to do something about it as “wokery”.

One of the tools at the disposal of universities in tackling racism is the Race Equality Charter (REC). In some circles outside the sector, the charter is either misunderstood or, frankly, deliberately positioned as some set of imposed and dogmatic rules with which universities must comply to “tick a box” on race. As anybody who is at least a bit familiar with the REC knows, this is completely untrue.

The REC is a sector-led framework that universities can use to develop their own plans to create inclusive teaching and research environments and tackle racism. At Advance HE, we are well aware that the best way to approach tackling inequalities is highly contested and I fully understand that not everyone shares the same view.

But universities are amongst the best places for this debate and should lead in finding solutions to longstanding societal challenges. This is why the REC is not prescriptive, and claims that to participate in the charter universities must decolonise the curriculum or crackdown on micro-aggressions are frankly, again, not true. These are not prescribed or mentioned in any of the charter guidance. They do not form part of the criteria for conferring an award.

Autonomy and support

Furthermore, applications are assessed through independent peer review, not by Advance HE. Our motivation is to support our members in delivering action plans that they develop to address the challenges that their staff and students have identified. We are not in the business of telling, persuading or shaming people into what to do – our members are autonomous, and if they choose to participate in the REC – and I hope they do – they do so on a completely voluntary basis.

The irony is not lost on me that the same people who have taken to opposing the REC are also promoting a narrative that it is a barrier to or in conflict with freedom of speech and academic freedom. The majority I have spoken to on the matter see and understand the intention of the REC, which is about supporting inclusion and belonging and the success of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students, enhancing their voice and input, and therefore the freedom of speech of an institution overall, so they are complementary aims.

As a prominent higher education lawyer, Smita Jamdar, Partner & Head of Education at Shakespeare Martineau, says,

There is in my view no legal inconsistency between signing up to an equality charter and the rights of academic freedom for individual academics. Institutions are subject to distinct and separate legal duties to promote equality and to ensure academic freedom and are used to complying with both. There is nothing in the adoption of any equality charter that inherently prevents individuals from researching, teaching, debating and discussing its underlying premise or merits. Indeed, as EHRC guidance makes clear, universities are under a positive duty to ensure that all voices can be heard on campus as part of their public sector equality duty. Adopting appropriate measures, such as those outlined in equality charters, to ensure that underrepresented groups are able to participate and exercise their own academic freedom and freedom of speech is one way of doing that.

Making assumptions that race equality work has winners and losers will sadly lead to further division. We are working hard to hear and bring all voices and ideas together, so that through dialogue we can hopefully move to a better place of understanding and in time through to concrete action for change.

Work to tackle racism is complex and it is certainly not “wokery”; there is no one size fits all because every university is different – and long may that be the case.

But while our members tell us that they need support in tackling racism and fostering inclusion, then we will not be derailed in our efforts to offer evidence-based support for them.

14 responses to “Supporting evidence-based action on racial inequality is not “wokery”

  1. Very well said. We still have so much to do to tackle inequality in all its forms, in the higher education sector as elsewhere. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on. The REC and similar initiatives are not just tools to help us to reduce inequality and to improve inclusion, but also valuable mechanisms for bringing together our combined expertise in and experience of what works. I might humbly suggest that anyone who claims otherwise either hasn’t engaged with them thoroughly or, ahem, possibly has some other agenda.

    1. “ahem, possibly has some other agenda”

      This is exactly the problem. Insinuating people are racist if they don’t want to engage with the REC, or if they disagree with the almost inevitable trajectory of ‘solutions’ (despite the protestations in this article), is reprehensible. It’s fundamentally racketeering and emotional manipulation.

      People can agree that racism exists without agreeing on how it manifests and, consequently, what should be done about it. Reasonable debate would be more possible if there wasn’t this attempt to hammer everyone into the third-wave anti-racist/woke ideology, which is anything but progressive.

  2. This prompts me to send an invitation to all our regional MPs to engage with the University of Chester about the work of our staff/student Race Equality Challenge Group. Much effort is still needed to achieve equality of opportunity in the UK today. Advance HE’s sector support for teaching and learning during the pandemic was also appreciated.

  3. Universities are adopting notions of ‘white privilege’, critical race theory, decolonise, micro-aggressions, unconscious bias etc to tick the REC boxes. It’s not necessarily a legal question, more a cultural one: the students and staff who object will be effectively speaking against their employer / institution. Of course that diminishes academic freedom. Stonewall provides a good model of how that works.

    1. This is what Critical Race Theory is really about. It’s not about improving the lives of minorities. It’s not about equality. It’s about establishing a mindset which views everything through the lens of race, and amplifying any grievance real or imagined. It’s designed to demonise white people and weaponise black people. Teachers are now encouraged to promote this ideology to the young, the impact of which can only be to create guilt and resentment. Brighton & Hove Council have been exposed trying to train their education staff to do this very thing.

      CRT is a belief system and not fact that is based on empirical data as would be required in a STEM discipline. Sure, data can be produced showing disparities, but the interpretation is purely emotional and political.

      What is the ultimate goal of this ideology? It makes colour blindness an impossibility, promoting instead segregation and discrimination. It promotes reverse racism.

      It is WOKE as it insists it’s CSJ supporters remain in a high state of arousal, ever vigilant. There is nothing to commend it.

  4. Those of us who care about positive social qualities on campus don’t pose (as AdvanceHE’s REC has done) a false choice between claiming that UK universities are all ‘structurally racist’ and claiming there’s no racism. We should try to understand multiple causes of inequalities, not vaguely blame everything on ‘racism’. What matters is to do what we can to empower disadvantaged people, and to foster constructive and harmonious inter-ethnic relations. The relentless race-pessimism and neo-racist divisiveness of USA’s CRT extremists is toxifying the social climate in UK universities. This harms us all, but is quite likely doing the most damage to disadvantaged minorities. Above all, AdvanceHE’s best prospect for addressing social disadvantage is to help us keep improving the social and intellectual climate of universities, so that we can provide excellent educational opportunities for everyone.

  5. I have removed a handful of overexcited comments from this article that inadvertently breached our moderation policy. All views are welcome here, but should be expressed with courtesy, kindness, and respect for others.

  6. Part of me wants to be reassured by Advance HE’s proclamation that the REC would not hamper freedom of speech and the right to bring up for discussion alternative explanations and remedies for inequalities (e.g. colour-blind universalism, but also, potentially, old-style Marxist class analysis) in the classroom, committees, and the public square. This is the part of me that sees the good sides of the REC, for instance an incentive to gather and publicise better data and the emphasis on action that ensures each student reaches her full potential, whatever the background. Academics of all colours and all viewpoints work tirelessly to achieve precisely this.

    And yet Johns has failed to persuade me.

    I am not convinced because the very materials Advance HE has posted online seem to contradict the line, trotted out by Johns, whereby a specific recipe against racism (which exists) is not being pushed on HEIs. A specific interpretive framework is instead assumed axiomatically. Anybody can verify this. I quote: “Structural racism … is embedded [sic] in our solutions and offers, including the Race Equality Charter and our work Tackling [sic] structural race inequality in higher education’.”; “Through engagement with different parts of the portfolio [which Advance HE provides “[f]or institutions which are considering or on their journey to the Race Equality Charter” – bp], individuals will improve their racial literacy by strengthening understanding of … white privilege and fragility”. If the REC application does not explicitly target “equity” (i.e. equality of outcomes), “equity” is there in the staff training which Advance HE offers as part of the same “portfolio” to participating institutions. The same materials also introduce the strange idea whereby mobilisation should form part of a university’s mission: “[d]eveloping KPIs for increasing engagement with race equality initiatives and staff/student engagement” is held up as an example of “success criterion”. Absence of discrimination and compliance with the Equality Act 2010 is not enough – one needs to prove loyalty.

    More specifically, Johns states that a “crackdown on microaggressions” is not required, but the REC Handbook 2021 emphasises the need to crack down on “micro-inequalities against minority ethnic individuals [which] can be difficult to describe and in isolation may seem insignificant.”. Let’s be honest: this is another name for the same thing.

    Johns states that no adhering university will be asked to “decolonise the curriculum”, but again Advance HE has provided “decolonising the institution” training and webinars to HEIs, particularly in Scotland. It is thus demonstrable that the “decolonising” move is a core part of what Advance HE considers “Tackling Racism on Campus”. Whilst it is true that no HEI applying for the REC has to sign up for one of those specific workshops, they are conveniently offered off-the-peg by the same organisation that awards the REC, so it would be rational to join or copy them. Conversely, only a fool would prepare a REC submission where the usefulness of “decolonising the curriculum” to reduce the awarding gap is ever questioned.

    Even more significantly, the REC Handbook 2021 encourages HEIs to submit information about “how you consider race equality within course content”, including “research and researchers cited within courses”. This is nothing but a reference to “citational justice”, and a blatant violation of academic freedom if ever there was one. Even committed “anti-racist” academics should detect in this a whiff of managerial overreach – and wonder how much time and energy will be wasted in the process.

    In sum, here Johns is throwing the ball back into the individual universities’ field (‘the REC is one of the tools’, ‘universities are the best place for this debate’). Perhaps we will really see a plurality of approaches deployed, diversity of views encouraged, and real discussion at all levels. Hope springs eternal. Meanwhile, Advance HE is undermining its credibility by trying to deny here what is in plain sight elsewhere.

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