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.
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.