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Equality and diversity in Higher Education

by | Mar 6, 2020 | Strategy & Transformation


It is well documented that an ethnically diverse higher education workforce positively affects the ability of institutions to deliver core services to a diverse student population.

In a survey conducted by the NUS on ‘Race for Equality’ (2011), on the experiences of Black students in further and higher education it highlighted that Black students want a more representative workforce, diverse teaching practices and more Black role models.

Many Black workers in higher education struggle to progress their career in the sector and there is extensive evidence that Black staff are underrepresented at all senior levels. Therefore, the initiative devised by Advance HE (previously Equality Challenge Unit) on race equality in higher education is a positive step.

Race Equality Charter Mark

In 2015 the Equality Challenge Unit launched its Race Equality Charter Mark (RECM) after extensive consultations to Universities to address racial inequalities as part of their ongoing commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. The RECM addresses inequalities and gets universities to think about race equality by examining their own practices and institutional culture, and developing actions plans. It is hoped that this would identify the root causes of race inequality and develop some solutions that can be shared as good practice (AdvanceHE website, accessed 7 May 2019.).

The Charter has the following five guiding principles:

• Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education. Racial inequalities are not necessarily overt, isolated incidents. Racism is an everyday facet of UK society and racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday situations, processes and behaviours.

• A UK higher education institution cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population, and until individuals from all ethnic backgrounds can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords.

• In developing solutions to racial inequalities, it is important that they are aimed at achieving long-term institutional cultural change, avoiding a deficit model where solutions are aimed at changing the individual.

• Minority ethnic staff and students are not a homogeneous group. People from different ethnic backgrounds have different experiences of and outcomes from/within higher education, and the complexity needs to be considered in analysing data and developing actions.

• All individuals have multiple identities, and the intersection of those different identities should be considered wherever possible.

At the time of the launch 33 institutions volunteered to take part in the RECM pilot (trialling of the framework) in August 2015, but only 22 applied by the 2015 deadline. Of the 22 institutions only the following 8 were successful:-

  • De Montfort University
  • King’s College London
  • Kingston University
  • Royal Holloway University of London
  • Staffordshire University
  • University College London
  • University of Hertfordshire
  • University of Manchester

Since the pilot further changes were made and ECU’s Race Equality Charter officially launched the scheme in January 2016 with plans to undertake an evaluation of impact in 2020. An additional 5 universities have been successful in being awarded the Bronze award:-

  • Abertay University (July 2016)
  • University of Oxford (February 2018)
  • University of Brighton (July 2019)
  • University of Cambridge (July 2019)
  • University of East London (July 2019)

To date (March 2020) the following insitutions have shown to have successfully renewed their charter mark:

  • De Montfort University – renewed February 2018
  • University of Manchester – renewed February 2018
  • Kingston University – renewed February 2019
  • Royal Holloway University of London – renewed February 2019

What do we know?

There are currently 62 members and 14 award holders of the Race Equality Charter. In comparison to its Athena SWAN charter (developed to encourage and recognise commitment to combating the under-representation of women in STEMM research and academia) it shows that there are currently 164 Athena SWAN members, holding 815 awards between them. The Athena SWAN charter completely ignored the plight of Black and minority ethnic women.

Questions therefore need to be asked – what is happening to the 42 institutions (some of which members since the pilot)? Why does it appear that is there no huge appetite for the race charter?

Concerns about race equality in Higher Education

Research conducted by Singh and Kwhali, (2015) found that there is a lack of Black Minority Ethnic (BME) staff at all levels, particularly at senior levels for both academic and professional staff. Several reasons are highlighted, for example:-

  • Recruitment practices – often they overlook the importance of positively promoting equality;
  • Black staff feeling unsupported or discriminated against;
  • EDI policies are mainly on show as a tick box exercise – they are simply not implemented.

In a race equality survey conducted by Black British Academic (BBA), 2014 it highlighted that 38% of staff agree in principle with the proposed Race Equality Charter Mark, 59% disagreed and 3% did not know. It also reported that 98% think it is important that black and minority ethnic staff and students are represented on the committee that awards the Race Equality Charter Mark. More importantly it reported on how black and minority ethnic staff and students experience racism and how this should be regarded as central to informing policy and practice around race equality.

Research by HEFCE (2014) reports BME staff are underrepresented compared to the student population and is most evident at senior management levels. BME staff are less likely than white staff to be on a permanent contract (61% compared to 74%) and that intersectionality of race and gender shows the largest contributing factor to under-representation of BME women at senior levels is gender. The report also reports a degree attainment gap of 16 percentage points between white and Asian students and 19 percentage points between white and black students, with the same entry qualifications.

In May 2019 a new report by Universities UK and the National Union of Students entitled Black, Asian and Minority Student Attainment at UK Universities: #CLOSINGTHEGAP, emphasises that the sector has accepted that there is a problem and the Office for Students (OfS) in England has set new targets for institutions to close their gaps. It was also reported that the issue has been given a profile by the Cabinet Office and the Government Race Disparity Audit.

The report focused on the following five steps needed for success in reducing attainment differentials:

  • Providing strong leadership;
  • Having conversations about race and changing the culture;
  • Developing racially diverse and inclusive environments;
  • Getting the evidence and analysing the data;
  • Understanding what works.

The report highlights that there is no ‘quick fix’ to address and eliminate attainment differentials as every university’s context is different but universities are encouraged to actively address the issues around race, ethnicity and attainment. An evaluation is set for 2020 which ties in with the evaluation of the Race Charter Mark.

There are already in the sector some excellent examples of good practice and the following are noted:

  • The embedding of race equality in the curriculum across all taught programmes;
  • University BME mentoring programme (a) to support new BME staff and (b) support career progression of BME staff;
  • The publishing of good practice examples on institutional webpages;
  • Unconscious bias training and development provision;
  • Yearly staff and student BME focus groups;
  • The promotion of BME role models/images on webpages.

It is important to note that the inequalities experienced by students in Higher Education is not new. In fact, black staff experience discrimination in all aspects of public life. In a report by David Lammy MP (2017), it highlighted the racial inequalities in the criminal justice system and race in the workplace. The NUS report 2011, ‘Race for Equality’ (linked earlier in this blog) highlighted the societal and institutional barriers embedded in education. In 2015, the Trust report ‘Aiming Higher’, highlighted the complex, interlinking issues of race within institutions, from inequalities in pay and promotion of BAME academic staff.

I acknowledge the limitations of a charter mark to influence individual attitudes, but the race equality charter would enable the sector to acknowledge race equality as an issue and put race back on the agenda.

What next and where can we learn more?

If your institution is looking for help with the Race Equality Charter Mark, we have a team of experts who can help. Email info@halpinpartnership.com for more information.

Liz Baptiste is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – the home of experts in higher education.