A major initiative to increase the number of black and ethnic minority staff in UK universities is to be reviewed amid concerns that its “onerous” red tape requirements are putting off institutions from participating.
The Race Equality Charter was founded by the Equality Challenge Unit in 2015 to tackle the underrepresentation of non-white staff in academic roles, particularly at more senior levels, where just 0.6 per cent of professors are black and 6 per cent are from an ethnic minority overall, according to latest figures.
It sought to emulate the success of the ECU’s Athena SWAN project to improve gender equality in academia, which now has almost 750 institutional and departmental award holders after starting with only 13 holders in 2006.
However, the Race Equality Charter has struggled to win the same support from universities, with only two further universities achieving awards since the inaugural eight winners were named almost three years ago. At the same stage, Athena SWAN had managed to more than treble its initial number of award holders.
Some university equality officers have complained that the race charter award is far more difficult and time-consuming to achieve than an Athena SWAN award. That is because it requires universities to collect information on staff, as Athena SWAN does, but also for students, with institutions required to create policies to address the fact that ethnic minority undergraduates often score lower than their white classmates of similar ability.
Gaining a gold is almost impossible given that there have been no silver winners in the scheme’s first few years, with the bar for bronze awards also set too high, some believe.
Others have claimed that it is more complex to create policies for ethnic minority staff than for female academics, given the different challenges faced by different groups, such as black female staff, Asian men or international faculty.
Speaking at a forum organised by the Higher Education Race Action Group (HERAG) in London, Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, which now has responsibility for the charter scheme, said she would undertake a review of the scheme next year after a similar examination of Athena SWAN had concluded.
Ms Johns told Times Higher Education that Advance HE was “incredibly proud” of the race equality charter scheme and, given that it was aimed at “tackling many centuries of ingrained racial inequality”, it was “unrealistic to think the process will be easy”.
The review would ensure that the scheme “is not unnecessarily burdensome and ensure higher education institutions are able to spend time advancing race equality, rather than applying for charter marks”, she added.
Kevin Coutinho, head of the University of Oxford’s equality and diversity unit, who is vice-chair of HERAG, admitted that the race equality charter was “data-heavy” but said it would be a mistake to drop the focus on how ethnic minority students are progressing in favour of an entirely staff-centred award, given concerns about the overall “pipeline” of ethnic minority academic talent.
“We want to make sure any review does not diminish the coverage of an institution,” said Mr Coutinho, who added that it was also important not to drop race equality assessments of professional services staffing. “It would be ironic to have an equality initiative that further divided staff depending on where they worked in a university,” he said.
However, the race equality charter scheme remained important because higher education’s “very diverse” student body is not reflected in its “not very diverse” workforce, insisted Mr Coutinho.
The race equality charter only seemed “onerous” to institutions because they are doing it for the first time and were often not committing enough resources to it, he said.
“When institutions tried to do Athena SWAN for the first time, there were the same complaints,” he said, adding that the race equality charter “will make progress”.