Higher education is considered to be liberal, progressive and inclusive. Yet when we look at the recent statistics released by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), they suggest that this is far from the case.

Whilst there has been a significant increase in the numbers of Black and minority ethnic (BME) students attending higher education institutions, this increase is not reflected in the staff body, particularly representation at senior levels.

For example, 69.2% of professors are white men and 21.6% are white women, yet only 7.3% of professors are BME men and 6.2% are BME women. Similarly, senior managers in higher education are more likely to be from a white background: 67.5% white male and 28.3% white female, with just 0.9% BME female and 3.3 per cent BME male (ECU, 2016.)

My recent research suggests that Black and minority ethnic academics are also more likely to consider a move to overseas higher education and many senior Black and minority ethnic academics report a lack of adequate support structures for career progression.

In an attempt to address inequalities in higher education, policy making such as the Athena SWAN charter introduced by the ECU in 2005, has shown significant progress with the advancement of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Universities are awarded a gold, silver or bronze charter mark.

The recently introduced Race Equality Charter works in a similar way but focuses on race diversity and covers academic, professional and support staff as well as student progression and attainment and diversity in the curriculum. The Race Equality Charter is underpinned by five key principles:

  • That racism is part of everyday life and racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday processes and behaviours
  • That individuals from all ethnic backgrounds should benefit equally from the opportunities available to them
  • That solutions to racial inequality should have long-term impact through institutional cultural change
  • That those from minority backgrounds are not a homogenous group and such complexity must be recognised when exploring race equality
  • That intersectional identities should be considered when discussing race equality

In 2015, nine out of 21 institutions were awarded the Race Equality Charter mark. But, will the Race Equality Charter make a difference? It is far too early to tell, and it has taken ten years to identify progress made by the impact of the Athena SWAN Charter. If it is tied to funding (as is the case for Athena SWAN) then many universities will be encouraged to apply for it.

This is a positive move that sends out a clear message; those universities who sign up to the Race Equality Charter mark value diversity, equity and inclusion. In the current post-Brexit climate, marred by insecurity, fragility and risk, universities need to communicate their wider values and commitment to engaging with heterogeneous communities of students.

The Race Equality Charter can also be used as a mechanism to develop inclusive strategies for the promotion of Black and minority ethnic staff to senior decision-making roles (given their under representation) such as professors, pro-vice-chancellors and chancellors.

If universities are serious about addressing race inequality, signing up to the Race Equality Charter will demonstrate this and by having Black and minority ethnic staff represented at the most senior levels, universities will demonstrate their commitment to prioritising an agenda in which social justice and equity are central to their core values.

Professor Kalwant Bhopal

Bridge Professorial Research Fellow

Centre for Research in Race and Education (CRRE)

School of Education