Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Blog

Improving Diversity in Higher Education

Kalwant Bhopal


Davide Cantelli

| 5 mins read

The Race Equality Charter mark (REC) was introduced in 2014 to improve the representation and progression of minority ethnic staff and students in higher education institutions. The charter aims to provide a framework through which institutions are encouraged to identify and reflect on institutional and cultural barriers impacting upon staff and students. Member institutions develop initiatives and solutions for action, and can apply for a Bronze or Silver REC award, depending on their level of progress.

There are 48 REC members and in 2015, a total of 21 institutions applied for the award of which eight were awarded a bronze award. Since last year, this number increased to 10 award holders.

In order for higher education institutions to seriously consider how racism affects the experiences of staff and students, they need to show clear commitment and investment in the charter. However, until now very little is known about the charter’s impact. Our research, funded by the University and College Union, is the first of its kind to explore the impact of equality policy making in higher education institutions. We conducted a total of 45 interviews with individuals working in a range of institutions; those involved with the REC and those working in diversity and equality departments (with a specific focus on race) in higher education institutions.

We were particularly interested in identifying aspects of good practice on race equality in institutions awarded the charter; exploring views of member and non-member institutions towards the charter and race equality and contributing to the University and College Union policymaking on race equality and inclusion in higher education.

The key findings of our study include greater resources for the participation and investment form senior management when applying for the REC. All institutions were aware of the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) attainment gap and the lived experiences of BME students and staff, as a result greater investment was needed from higher education institutions for this. Participants also highlighted the importance of the REC and its principles being linked to real institutional change, rather than it simply being a tick box exercise.

Our study suggests one way forward is for the charter to be linked directly to UK Research and Innovation funding. This is the main funding body in the UK and has a budget of £60 billion to fund research in higher education.

In addition to this, unconscious bias training should be included as mandatory for all senior staff in higher education institutions, as well as training on the awareness of white privilege. All institutions should have a senior member of staff (such as a pro-vice chancellor) whose main responsibility it is to ensure that race equality policy is implemented. They must be required to provide annual reviews which show how they have addressed the BME attainment gap, and the strategies they have used to improve it and the underrepresentation of BME staff.

Investing in the professional development of BME staff is important for addressing inequalities – as would providing greater support for BME staff on temporary short-term research-only contracts.

The most significant recommendations proposed by our report include changes in the REC application process. AdvanceHE was introduced in March 2018, and it brings together the work of the ECU, Leadership Foundation and the Higher Education Academy into one organisation to address issues of inclusion and equality. We suggest reassessing the requirements for applying for the REC and consider introducing a scale of application stages – from addressing REC in relation to staff; in relation to students; and finally addressing cultural and institutional change (resulting in an REC award). We also recommend AdvanceHE consider department/faculty REC awards in order that individual departments/faculties can claim ownership of the award.

Finally, higher education institutions must encourage safe approaches to developing conversations which address racism and white privilege. We are aware that what is primarily needed is a significant cultural and attitudinal shift. We need higher education institutions to change the way they view the contribution BME academics make, and to acknowledge and recognise institutional racism and structural disadvantages.

Our recommendations are a way forward, but they pose significant challenges in terms of implementation.