The racial equality agenda needs buy-in from senior management

Senior leaders must lead the charge in changing higher education’s structural disadvantages for black and minority ethnic staff and students, say Kalwant Bhopal and Sally Hunt

September 19, 2018
Black Oxford student
Source: Alamy

There have been some significant advances in policy making in England since the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000). Higher education’s Race Equality Charter mark, introduced in 2014, is one of them.

It was created to improve the representation and progression of black and minority ethnic staff and students in higher education, in the wake of a significant increase in the numbers of students from BME backgrounds attending universities. Numbers of BME staff have also increased in recent years, up from 4.8 per cent in 2004 to 7.2 per cent in 2016.

However, despite these advances, inequalities in higher education continue to exist. White students are, for example, more likely to receive a first or 2:1 degree (78.4 per cent do so) compared with 63.4 per cent of students from BME groups. 

Meanwhile, ethnic minority staff are more likely to be underrepresented in the highest contract levels and overrepresented in the lowest contract levels. For example, only 1.6 per cent of heads of institutions are BME, and just 2.9 per cent work as managers and directors.

New research commissioned for the University and College Union and published on 19 September aims to assess the impact of the charter and provide a better understanding of what universities need to do to address inequalities in their institutions.

The report – conducted by Kalwant Bhopal and Clare Pitkin from the University of Birmingham – found that universities welcomed the charter as a real opportunity to address attainment gaps and found the application process an eye-opener in terms of the information that they needed to find and what they would need to do to complete it.

But interviewees also said that they wanted more resources dedicated to the charter process and a buy-in from senior management. They felt that this would give them a chance to challenge the culture and structure of the organisation, which needed to change.

We believe that staff need to be fully supported if change is to happen and there are a number of ways that can be achieved. First, we would like to see mandatory unconscious bias training for all senior staff, particularly for those involved in recruitment and promotion panels.

To ensure proper buy-in across universities, we want to see them nominate a senior member of staff (such as a pro vice-chancellor) whose main responsibility it is to ensure that a race equality policy is implemented.

This will help address another issue that came up in the report: too often race-equality policies or initiatives were seen as the responsibility of BME staff, rather than all staff. Having a senior member of staff lead a race equality initiative, should also ensure that universities can have frank discussions about race.

Individuals who worked in institutions where they had already submitted their charter applications said that the process had encouraged dialogue about the challenges of race equality that were not often addressed in day-to-day discussions of equality and diversity.

The report goes on to say that the subject of race had become taboo in some institutions and that staff did not want to engage for a fear of offending. It is absolutely vital that, in universities of all places, we develop safe approaches to encourage these open and honest conversations around racism and inequality.

However, universities should not lose sight of the fact that racial inequality is a priority to be addressed rather than have its legitimacy questioned.

To ensure that the Race Equality Charter achieves a greater status across the sector, we believe that it should be linked to research funding, similar to Athena SWAN. We would also like to see individual departments have the ability to apply for the award when there is an unwillingness higher up the university food chain to do so.

Of course what is primarily needed is a significant cultural and attitudinal shift regarding the contribution that BME academics make, and an acknowledgment of the structural disadvantages in universities.

This report offers some suggestions and poses challenges for universities. It is also a powerful tool to support individuals calling for a strategic focus on race equality, even if their organisation is not yet signed up to the charter.

However, if the REC is to be effective, then it should significantly alter how institutions address equity, diversity and inequalities in their organisations. The evidence of this will speak for itself.

Kalwant Bhopal is a professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham. Sally Hunt is general secretary of the University and College Union.

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