Equality scheme letter ‘crossed line’, universities tell Donelan

UUK letter to minister says it is ‘unclear what evidence is available’ to back claim that external schemes threaten free speech and requests meeting

六月 30, 2022
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021
Source: Phillip Waterman
Michelle Donelan speaks at THE Campus Live 2021

English universities have told higher education minister Michelle Donelan that “an important line has been crossed” by her letter telling them to consider pulling out of the sector’s voluntary Race Equality Charter and other diversity schemes.

A letter from Universities UK president Steve West and interim chief executive Chris Hale, seen by Times Higher Education, also tells the minister that universities are “not clear what the intent of your recent letter is and are unclear what evidence is available to support the assertion that external assurance schemes are negatively impacting free speech”.

It also says that “UUK’s concerns have been flagged separately with Iain Mansfield”, Ms Donelan’s special adviser, viewed as the key figure in the Department for Education’s confrontational approach to higher education, but that UUK “would welcome an early opportunity to discuss this with you directly”.

UUK’s letter, which takes an unusually strong tone with the minister, is a sign of deepening tension between the sector and the DfE over that approach.

Ms Donelan’s letter of 27 June highlighted Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter, awarded to 23 universities, as an example of “external assurance and benchmarking diversity schemes” that are potentially “in tension” with “creating an environment that promotes and protects free speech”.

Her letter responded to a story in The Sunday Telegraph that saw Advance HE accused of “egregious wokery” over the scheme.

“Bearing in mind the substantial sums invested by the taxpayer in higher education, I would ask you to consider whether membership of these schemes, the initiatives that flow from them, and the creation of new, highly paid management roles in these areas truly represent good value for money for taxpayers or students,” Ms Donelan told vice-chancellors.

UUK’s letter to Ms Donelan, sent on 28 June, says the organisation will shortly be publishing a “strong sector commitment endorsed by our board which reaffirms our collective commitment to promoting academic freedom and free speech” and “will include a clear statement on staff and students not feeling the need to self-censor lawful views”.

It adds: “Universities, as autonomous institutions, must also remain free to decide how best to foster inclusivity and tackle societal issues such as racism which have a serious and detrimental impact on staff and students. The scale of the challenge is considerable…The sector’s work to address these issues aligns with the government’s own aspirations to tackle harassment and eradicate degree awarding gaps which have a real and long-standing impact on individuals’ life chances.”

The letter continues: “We would welcome the opportunity to discuss any evidence you have and to explore how universities might best respond to that evidence.

“Further, many institutions have highlighted that an important line has been crossed with the letter appearing to direct universities to take a specific approach to voluntary assurance frameworks and to internal management structures.”

It goes on: “We understand from our members in England that a number will likely respond to you directly, both to restate their commitment to ensuring free speech and to highlight how external assurance schemes play an important role in tackling serious issues such as harassment and degree awarding gaps.”

The Department for Education declined to comment.




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Reader's comments (2)

Apparently, "a number will likely respond to you directly" so this becomes a test of comittment, let's see how many HEIs actually respond
Universities are quite capable of deciding how best to meet their duty of care to all their members (staff & student alike), and many find that external validation is a good way of focussing the mind on matters of equality and equity across various protected characteristics. It also can open up debate on such matters, what, for example, does 'decolonisation' mean and how can it be achieved in an academically rigorous manner that enhances the curriculum for everyone? (And yes, THE, I've advertised your upcoming webinar to our decolonising the curriculum working group!). We take such matters seriously in universities. Not sure how seriously any politician takes them, though.