The University of Birmingham was awarded the Race Equality Charter (REC) Bronze Award in June 2020. The announcement of the Bronze Award meant a great deal to the many individuals who made significant contributions during the preparation process. The news came at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, which grew to become one of the largest decentralised political and social movements for anti-discrimination globally that the world has ever seen. It was undoubtedly an awakening for many universities in the UK and abroad, as Birmingham’s Director of the Centre for Research on Race and Education, Professor of Education and Social Justice Kalwant Bhopal MBE said: "Sometimes we have to say things that can be uncomfortable, like highlighting the role of higher education in perpetuating inequality." This is an excellent summary of the essence of the Race Equality Charter. There are systematic racial inequalities in the higher education sector, and we need to do better to tackle it.
It is not a trade secret that universities race to pursue league table rankings and award titles to signal differentiation and excellence. However, REC is not for the self-congratulatory. This charter mark is for demonstrating a commitment to tackle race inequalities, and to be held accountable for institutional progress through a periodic review process.
As our Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Sir David Eastwood, pointed out, the preparation for REC "has been extremely valuable in highlighting the need for long-term institutional change… [the Award outcome] is the start of a journey on enhancing race equality and improving the experience of BAME staff and students." As we know, all great journeys start with good preparation. The REC journey is no exception.
We commonly hear questions asking about the terms of reference for setting up a REC self-assessment team or the workload allocation for putting together an application. All these are very important considerations that must be discussed by each REC member institution. Yet, there would be no genuine cultural change if students and staff were not committed to making conversations about race a normal part of campus discourse. This has been the core from the start of our three-year preparation leading to the successful award application.
The impact of this activity can be seen in the development of the University’s Black History Month programme. We moved from a limited programme in 2016 that was based around exhibitions rather than discussing race in detail, to the much larger and more ambitious 2019 programme of 24 events, which was designed to engage both White and BAME individuals from across the University to discuss race openly and critically. The conversation was further widened through our campus-wide consultation involving over 5,000 students and staff, which informed the development of Birmingham’s REC Action Plan. Moreover, we were also very aware of the need to increase the capacity and confidence of managers in recognising and responding to race-related grievances. We have started to address this through our Talking Confidently About Race workshop programme for senior managers. We are continuing to promote conversations about race and intersectionality through an upcoming Race Ahead programme for staff with student-facing responsibilities and an EDI online course for students.
Talking about race is never easy, but these conversations and encounters are necessary for dismantling ignorance and promoting allyship. This is particularly important as we aim to bring our diversity alive through embedding inclusivity for all, and thus ensure that our three-year REC action plan will not just be delivered by “EDI people” but by our 44,000 students and staff as a community.
Dr Sammy Li
Find out more about the Race Equality Charter (REC) - encouraging and recognising commitment to improving the representation, progression and success of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and students; and read more about our services and support for institutions in promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion