Research councils may tie funding to diversity accreditation

Scepticism that proposal to encourage diversity could effectively regulate sector

March 20, 2014

The UK’s research councils will look at tying funding to membership of schemes such as Athena SWAN, which promotes good employment practices for women in science, if they decide universities are failing to improve gender and ethnic diversity among academic staff.

That is the view of Iain Cameron, head of research careers and diversity at Research Councils UK, who told Times Higher Education that the body was now considering how best to evaluate the evidence and act if it was lacking. “If there is no evidence of change then maybe we should intervene a bit more firmly,” he said. But he stressed: “It is not the sort of thing that you do very lightly.”

RCUK issued universities with a Statement of Expectations for Equality and Diversity in 2013 that called on institutions to collect evidence that policies on diversity were working at the departmental level.

However, it stopped short of requiring them to obtain formal accreditation through schemes such as Athena SWAN, an approach other funders have taken. In 2011, Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, said medical schools without an Athena SWAN silver award would not be eligible for Department of Health research funding.

Dr Cameron said change was needed “across a whole range of diversity issues” so for RCUK it is “not as simple as getting Athena SWAN awards”.

RCUK’s statement of expectation lists several possible sources of evidence of diversity for universities including Vitae’s Every Researcher Counts initiative, Investors in People accreditation and Athena SWAN.

“The other side is that we do not fund the whole of research, [so] we are not in a position to regulate the system,” Dr Cameron said. “The reality is that because it is a culture change issue it does need time.”

But Louise Morley, professor at the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, said an initiative tying RCUK funding to diversity accreditation was overdue. She said that other changes to the sector, such as tuition fees, have been “implemented overnight”. “A key question is why higher education has been content to have such archaic gender regimes for so long?” she asked.

Professor Morley added that “as economics seem to structure most decision-making, it seems appropriate to introduce equality and diversity measures into this rationality”, although she warned that one of the challenges would be resistance from academics.

Janet Hemingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, doubted that tying funding to Athena SWAN or other initiatives alone could “make a huge impact”. “These things are only as good as the actual practice on the ground,” she said. She added that it could motivate some change, but perhaps only in mentorship and in universities with a “minimal level” of equality conditions.

Recent success rates data published by RCUK found that senior women are less successful than men at getting large research grants.

“Getting the Athena SWAN [awards] will have little or no impact on that,” Professor Hemingway said.

David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, criticised any move to tie funding to diversity accreditation, saying it was “clearly utter nonsense to bring into the equation complex and irrelevant considerations driven by political whim”.

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