Marks of racial equality

Equality unit to pilot third initiative to foster greater fairness in academy. Elizabeth Gibney reports

September 26, 2013

Racial equality is to become the target of a new higher education “charter mark”.

The Equality Challenge Unit, which runs the Athena SWAN Charter for Women in Science and the gender equality charter mark in the arts, humanities and social sciences, will launch a pilot of the award next year to inform its full roll-out in 2015.

To achieve the mark, universities will have to demonstrate their efforts to dismantle the barriers facing black and minority ethnic academics while recognising that different groups face different problems, said Claire Herbert, senior policy adviser at the ECU.

Staff survey results, data on the number of BME staff at different levels, retention and timescales to promotion are all likely to come under scrutiny, she added.

The accolade, which like Athena SWAN will be awarded at the bronze, silver and gold level, will cover postgraduate students and professional and support staff, as well as academics.

It will apply to whole institutions, rather than just departments, and depending on feedback may also seek a “holistic view” by including undergraduates, she said.

Calls to create the mark came from within the sector, Ms Herbert explained, including members of the Higher Education Race Action Group, a cross-sector network of experts that asked why a mark existed for gender equality but not for race.

Kalwant Bhopal, reader in education at the University of Southampton, told Times Higher Education that she was in favour of the initiative.

“I think the mark will not only make institutions think about race equality issues – because quite frankly I don’t think they do – but also encourage them to think about their own practices and institutional culture,” she said.

Dr Bhopal stressed the need for the mark to ensure that BME academics were not treated as a homogeneous group (for example, by also taking into account factors such as class and gender).

It was also important to look at the number of UK-born BME academics, she said. “Quite often…a lot of senior professors who are defined as black and minority ethnic have come recently from abroad.”

The award could end up as the third equality mark universities are expected to apply for. Given the added administrative burden this would bring, Ms Herbert noted, she had prepared herself for a “bit of a backlash”, but the feedback so far had been positive.

The main concern was that the award be “robust”, she said. To ensure this, the ECU would take its time to develop the mark in collaboration with the sector, including BME staff and students.

“People want to make sure it’s not a box-ticking exercise,” she said.

Ms Herbert acknowledged that Athena SWAN has been successful partly because of Department of Health stipulations that link funding to the award, as well as the possibility that the research councils might do the same.

“It’s not for the ECU to lobby for the race charter mark to be part [of such requirements] but…it’s possible that it would be,” she added.

The BME community’s interaction with higher education is already the subject of an MPs’ inquiry launched earlier this month.

Led by former higher education minister David Lammy, the inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community is due to run until November.

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

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