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We need to talk about race

Published: 23/03/2015

Janet Beer calls for more consideration of race equality in HE

Gender inequality is well documented and frequently discussed; increasingly we are having sensible debates about the barriers preventing women from reaching the top of their chosen career paths, and implementing strategies to change attitudes and processes to ensure women are not held back. Recent work in this field, jointly sponsored by ECU and the Leadership Foundation has generated a huge amount of interest and follow-up events – conferences, seminars, debates – are taking place nationally and internationally.

We are much less good, as a sector and a society, at talking about ethnicity. When we look at the diversity (or lack thereof) of vice-chancellors across the UK it is striking that so few are women, even fewer are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background, and as far as I know, none are BME women.

Chasing parity

Speculating about how long it will be before women are fairly represented within the higher echelons of our sector can be discouraging, but there are positives: many institutions are immersed in Athena SWAN, progress is being made and, increasingly, women have an influential voice.  The education press regularly features something about gender equality – there is a level of interest and engagement that shows no sign of subsiding.

In contrast, speculating about how long it will be before minority ethnic women, or minority ethnic individuals generally, are fairly represented within our sector is different. Leaders in our higher education institutions know that racial inequalities exist, but we are not talking about them publicly. None of us wants to attract negative press, or say the wrong thing, or to be accused of being institutionally racist.

Furthermore, whilst men and women are working side by side to promote gender equality, the equivalent does not seem to be happening to the same extent with race. The combined effort of men and women, with all acknowledging the need for change, has been crucial to the advancement of gender equality.  For a step change in race equality to take place, the imbalance in advantage also needs to be acknowledged and owned by all.

Academic flight

ECU’s 2011 report The Experiences of black and minority ethnic staff in higher education evidences what was largely already known: UK BME staff do not have the same experience of our sector as their white UK peers. The research has found that BME staff feel under greater scrutiny, have to work harder to prove themselves, are less likely to be encouraged to go for promotion, and are less often successful in applications for promotion when they do apply.

Following this, ECU today published research on academic flight from UK higher education which presents findings which we need to address, as a sector, as a matter of urgency.

First and foremost senior leaders, and higher education as a whole, need to acknowledge and tackle the under-representation and specific challenges that face BME staff. In addition we must publicly embrace, support and acknowledge the talent of our UK BME academics in the UK – and encourage those who have left to return.

We have invested in the development of talent but our competitors overseas are benefitting from UK-grown, UK-educated and UK-funded British talent. It is our responsibility to ensure we retain but also attract back UK BME staff.

Charter mark

Reading the academic flight research confirmed to me that we are making at least two steps in the right direction to tackling race inequality in higher education. As Chair of the ECU Board, I am proud that we supported the organisation’s decision to develop a race equality charter mark. We must ask honest questions of the behaviour, processes and culture that need to be tackled to advance race equality. Committing to the race charter mark is significant, both from a reputational perspective, and because of the inevitable resource implications; no institution has spare budget or staff time at their disposal. Changing cultures and advancing equality require prioritisation and making difficult choices.

Twenty-six HEIs have taken the plunge and committed to the charter. We all need to face the fact that our institutions have to change and we as leaders have to lead that change, regardless of how uncomfortable we may feel in the process. However difficult it is now, it will be worth it in the long term when our institutions reflect the diversity of our society and when every individual is able to access, progress and succeed regardless of their race or ethnicity.