Recent reports in some sections of the media have criticised Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter (REC). They question our motivations and our work to support the higher education sector to tackle inequalities to address racism and harassment.
Advance HE’s work is entirely evidence-based. Our priorities are informed by our members and a broad range of sector and academic experts. We are an educational charity and not a campaigning organisation. Activism plays no part in our work. We have no particular ideological stance or agenda that we are seeking to promote. We do not seek to compel our members to adopt particular theories, methods or stances – indeed, we have no power to do so even if we wanted to.
Our purpose is strictly to support our members in working out approaches that are appropriate for them and which meet their circumstances and priorities in tackling some difficult, sensitive and contested issues in promoting Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) across the higher education sector.
Our recent blog published by Wonkhe illustrates some of the evidence about the problem we are facing in higher education:
In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission uncovered ‘widespread evidence’ of racial harassment on university campuses and Universities UK has since issued guidance on tackling racial harassment in higher education. In degree awarding, we know from our survey work with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), that while black students are generally more engaged with their studies, they are consistently scored lower: 86 per cent of white students qualify with a first or 2:1 – for black students the figure is 66.3 per cent (The Office for Students has called on universities to tackle this gap.) Similar disparity is evident with staff, where 89.1 per cent of professors are white, and 0.7 per cent are black.
In the light of this evidence and faced with calls for action to tackle racism, abuse and harassment from students and staff within their own university communities, our members look to us for support in deciding what action it would be appropriate to take. Our members comprise over 320 institutions across the UK. They have told us that tackling inequalities is a priority for them. This reflects the deep commitment of universities and higher education institutions in this country to ensure that they are safe, inclusive communities, which welcome students and staff from every background and which support every individual to achieve their full potential. It is that commitment which drives our work to provide the best support we can. The REC offers one proven approach and powerful means by which members can use to work out their priorities for action in their communities.
The REC is a non-prescriptive framework which categorically does not require universities to ‘decolonise’ their curricula. What the REC does do is to ask applicants to outline how they consider race equality within course content. That is an appropriate and important component of the framework. In particular, if we are to tackle the black awarding gap referenced above – as the OfS is urging universities to do – we must first understand what is causing it. The content of courses, how they are delivered, and how they are assessed are all important considerations for institutions in order for them to identify which factors may be causing exclusion, disengagement or under-achievement for black students.
Advance HE recognises that the ways and means to deal with racism are contested. People hold strong and conflicting opinions. This is complex and nuanced work. One of the many strengths of the REC is that it isn’t prescriptive. As autonomous institutions, universities can engage with the REC to help to create an inclusive institution by developing actions with their staff and students relevant to their own context and grounded in evidence.
REC and freedom of speech
A key goal for the REC is to give voice to often unheard groups and communities and supports inclusion, belonging and the success of black and other minority ethnic staff and students. The processes for engaging with REC does ask that institutions consult with their staff, giving voice to all. Therefore, the REC supports freedom of speech and is not counter to it. We see these as complementary aims. We recognise that some people object to terminology used by others. But we believe that the rights of people to use the language that is meaningful for them should be respected, within the law and the context of open, free debate where all voices are heard.
Over the past year, we have been working closely with UUK and Guild HE to be clear about how the sector protects and promotes freedom of speech, while still taking robust action to tackle abuse and harassment. These can be difficult balances to strike: one person’s freedom of speech may be experienced by another person as abuse, and universities are trying to navigate their way through some sensitive and emotive situations where different imperatives and legal responsibilities can be in tension. Our shared commitment to freedom of speech, along with zero tolerance of racism and harassment, aims to support the constructive and healthy dialogue that is essential if we are to find our way through to constructive solutions that bring people together.