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The Race Equality Charter is a misguided and pointless target for the Government’s ire

  • 11 August 2022
  • By Mia Liyanage

This blog was contributed by Mia Liyanage, the author of our HEPI Debate Paper 23, Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities. Mia is Race Equality Charter Officer at Goldsmiths, University of London and an Associate at Advance HE. She is a decolonisation advocate, freelance EDI practitioner and the former Co-Chair of Common Ground Oxford, a student movement challenging racism, classism and the legacy of colonialism in both the University and the city of Oxford. 

The Race Equality Charter has been through a lot recently. Advance HE’s Charter Mark focusing on improving the representation, progression and success of staff and students of colour in higher education was branded ‘egregious wokery’ in the Daily Telegraph by a ‘Government source’. The interim Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS), Susan Lapworth, slighted the Race Equality Charter (REC) and Athena Swan – its gender-focused counterpart – by warning, ‘​​I’d expect autonomous universities to be thinking carefully and independently about their free speech duty when signing up to these sorts of schemes.’ 

Finally, these and other rumblings seemed to culminate in a now-infamous letter written to all higher education providers by Michelle Donelan, the then Further and Higher Education Minister. Of the REC and Athena Swan, Donelan wrote, ‘given the importance of creating an HE environment in which free speech and academic freedom can flourish, I would like to ask you to reflect carefully as to whether your continued membership of such schemes is conducive to establishing such an environment.’ Reading between the lines, sector commentators quickly identified one of the Government’s more brazen attempts to stoke the culture wars. Many have come out to defend the REC with varying levels of exasperation. Perhaps most notably, prior even to Donelan’s letter, Advance HE’s Chief Executive responded to media criticism by stating firmly that ‘Supporting evidence-based action on racial inequality is not “wokery”’.

As the institutional lead for Goldsmiths, University of London’s application to the Race Equality Charter, I have been working on the REC directly for almost a year and a half. Like many of my sector colleagues, I have watched these recent attacks first with morbid fascination, then with growing alarm. Despite their language to the contrary, these opinions on the REC seem more concerned with limiting free speech and autonomy in our universities than protecting it. To be frank, though, I have also been watching with incredulity. This coverage really surprised me. Not because I was surprised at the Government’s attitude to race or to the pursuit of racial justice – as an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) practitioner of colour in higher education, little surprises me these days – but because the REC seems such an unlikely target for this level of outrage. 

The Race Equality Charter was first developed and launched in 2015 with a pilot that ran from 2015-18, and has been running as a full service since 2018. Of the pilot’s 21 participating institutions, only eight successfully applied for Bronze awards. In Summer 2020, the Charter had just 66 members (members are working towards an application and are not award-holders). At the time of publication in summer 2022, that number has grown to 97 – but these institutions hold just 26 Bronze awards between them. And although four are applying over the next two years, no institution has yet achieved a Silver award. This fact shocked me when I first started working on the Charter. All these data indicate that the REC is still an emerging Charter Mark; the requirements for which hardly have our universities in a headlock. On the contrary, only a small minority of our institutions are following the REC’s principles. 

Following two external reviews of the REC over the past couple of years, reforms to the Charter to make it more ‘streamlined, engaging, supportive and impactful’ and to increase the submission window from three to five years will launch in September. Institutions will continue to self-select and self-assess what their institutions need to act on. In other words, the REC will become even less prescriptive than it is now. What is more, recent analysis shows that figures pertaining to ‘rejected’ speakers at UK universities in 2020-21 were framed misleadingly by the OfS as a free speech matter: ‘this sharp rise in rejected speakers is very concerning’, a Minister commented, despite the fact that just eight out of 193 events were cancelled for ‘other reasons’ than health and safety or logistics. All in all, evidence that the REC poses a threat to free speech, or that there is any meaningful threat to free speech in universities is wearing thin. 

So, the Race Equality Charter can hardly be said to be homogenising our institutions. Indeed, far from causing harm, the REC is bringing significant benefits to sector staff, students and institutions. For example, as I have pointed out previously, EDI has a visibility problem. Far too often, the very students whose experience at university would be most transformed by effective EDI initiatives are left in the dark about what EDI is and how to access its support and resources. At Goldsmiths, the communication and engagement structures within the REC help us to combat this, while the nature of applying for and maintaining a Charter award is an excellent source of external accountability for institutions on this issue and countless others.  

Furthermore, the Race Equality Charter is laughably far from a dictator of radicalism. According to the sheer volume of research within and beyond our sector demonstrating the necessity of an anti-racist approach to structural racism, the REC does not go far enough. It is not the ‘Anti-Racist Charter’. And as anyone who has worked on the REC knows, it is a really useful framework for understanding and beginning to tackle the barriers that face staff and students of colour, but it is just that – a framework. Indeed, since the start of Goldsmiths’ journey on this, we have been clear that the REC is only a means to an end; not a tick-box exercise, but a basis on which to build a committed, inclusive approach to racial justice. The Race Equality Charter is not and cannot be an end in itself. As we all know, holding a Charter Mark is no replacement for wholesale, long-term culture change. 

It is for these reasons that I find the demonisation of the REC utterly pointless. To caricature a sensible, uncontroversially beneficial initiative such as this feels not only absurd, but counterproductive to the Government’s aims. As a sector we know that the REC is just one tool in our arsenal for improving the experiences of staff and students of colour – so attacking the Charter does not shake the foundations of this work. Ultimately, our Government’s own radicalism in the face of overwhelming evidence for structural and institutional racism will only push institutions committed to equality to be more strident in their pursuit of it, not less. 

To be clear, I have not written this piece to contribute to a culture war. Apart from anything else, the Race Equality Charter is simply not salacious enough to be a major player in any such thing. The REC is nothing more or less than a pragmatic, evidence-based initiative to help us move the needle towards true race equity in higher education. And if its political naysayers genuinely think that universities are only engaging in that work because of a prescriptive Charter Mark, well, that tells us everything we need to know about their attitude to equality. 

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