Black staff ‘get least benefit’ from UK Race Equality Charter

Review of scheme finds concerns about workload, assessment and commitment of university leaders

March 10, 2021
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Black staff members have benefited less from the development of the UK-based Race Equality Charter (REC) than other ethnic minorities, a report suggests.

An evaluation of the charter, which was established in 2015 by the Equality Challenge Unit and is now operated by Advance HE, says that institutions largely reported improvements in the diversity of their academic and professional workforces after participating in the exercise.

However, the review, conducted by the Douglas Oloyede consultancy for Advance HE, found “notable decreases” in the representation of black academic and professional staff, as well as black students, in some institutions that had held awards the longest.

This, the report says, means that there may need to be “a recognition that anti-blackness…is at play within universities and will require a specific focus if the inequitable outcomes for black staff and students are not to continue”.

“All non-black groups are capable of anti-black racism,” the report adds, suggesting that universities could be required to take specific action to improve the progression of black staff and students, rather than ethnic minorities more broadly, if they are to maintain their REC accreditation.

There are now 79 institutional REC members, 17 of which are award holders. The scheme is yet to emulate the impact of Athena SWAN, partly because – unlike the gender equality programme – it has not historically been tied to funding.

The 180-page report on the REC finds many examples of its positive impact. But it also highlights complaints that are largely shared by Athena SWAN participants around workload and the fairness of the assessment process.

In a survey of representatives of past, current and potential member institutions, 43.4 per cent felt that the workload was too high, compared with 26.4 per cent that believed it was appropriate and 13.2 per cent that felt it was too low.

The majority of respondents – 58.8 per cent – thought that the workload was not shared appropriately among university staff. Concerns are often raised that the work falls disproportionately on ethnic minority staff.

Asked how effective the REC peer panel review process was in determining the outcomes of applications, the most popular answer among respondents was “neither effective nor ineffective”, chosen by 45.8 per cent of respondents. Although 39.6 per cent felt it was effective or very effective, some institutions raised concerns about a perceived lack of objectivity, consistency and expertise across panels.

And asked to identify the barriers to making greater progress on racial equality, many respondents cited a lack of commitment and even resistance to the REC from senior leaders, and the challenge of juggling work on the charter with Athena SWAN. Among non-members, 57.9 per cent of respondents said that a barrier to joining REC was that their institution was “not willing or feeling confident enough to talk openly about race and how racism manifests within the institution”.

The report suggests that the REC could be supported by requiring participation in it at a certain point of Athena SWAN participation, and by asking research funders to require it as a means of demonstrating consideration of race equality.

It recommends that guidance should warn against overburdening ethnic minority staff with REC work and should require the participation of white staff, too.

Kathryn Harrison-Graves, Advance HE’s director for membership and accreditation, said that it had “never been more important to ensure the sector is effectively supported to address racial inequalities”.

She said a governance committee would be created to inform and oversee the future development of the charter.

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