Partnership not Piecemeal Approach required for Race Equality


Here on the OBV website, Professor Harinder Bahra confronts the British academic establishment's lack of BME representation at all levels. His data is compelling; his concern that things could get worse should be worrying for us all. Above all, Professor Bahra has been brave challenging the status quo, particularly at the highest level, which can seriously damage your career prospects. Undiminished by that, Bahra has said what needs to be said.

We at OBV salute and support his courageous act. Moreover, we hope that his selfless act will not only encourage other BME academics to talk and support each other much more, but also give them greater confidence to put their heads above the parapet and tell those uncomfortable truths.

Simon Woolley

Partnership not Piecemeal Approach required for Race Equality

At a time when the Conservative government is encouraging black babies to be adopted by white families, it is apparent that Universities have not exactly been adopting black and minority ethnic staff. This month saw the launch of the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) commissioned report on the experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic staff working in Higher Education. The report comes at a difficult time when Universities are worried about the impact of marketisation and student fees. The Government’s stated agenda is to improve social mobility for marginalised groups by monitoring Universities and fair access to the labour market. Much has been said about encouraging women into board positions to improve our nation’s competitiveness, cognitive diversity and decision-making but there appears little appetite for addressing race equality in the same way. At a time when many Universities are reducing costs through staff reductions, outsourcing services, re-structuring and at the same time trying to attract UK BME and international students, ensuring and advancing race equality becomes an important business consideration and lever for competitive advantage.

Despite 40 years of legislation, the report has confirmed some of the continued barriers faced by BME staff who are still under-represented in the UK Higher Education system. In particular, the poor representation of BME staff within professorial grades (only 0.4% of Black academics, 1.6% Asian academics and 1.1% Chinese academics are professors compared 11% of White academics) and senior management roles at Vice Chancellor, Deputy, Pro-Vice Chancellors and Dean. With a BME student population approaching 20% albeit skewed towards new universities rather than Russell group, the staff data is pitiful and unrepresentative. The research attempts to identify some of the key issues such as a gap between policy and practice, poor recruitment practices, workload models, development and how these can lead to a different career trajectory for those who are unfortunate enough to face the inevitable barriers. The paucity of sector initiatives is self evident and the recommendations offered are found in most race equality policies and plans. To some extent these findings are not new since the situation is replicated in other knowledge businesses such as Further Education and the National Health Service.

Sympathy and understanding or glossy publications alone do not bring about change within the sector or institutions. If they did, change would already be implemented. What is required is the political will and a way of engaging a multi-partnership approach galvanising a collective workable policy and operational objectives with clear key performance indicators for the sector. This needs to include stakeholders such as the Higher Education Funding Councils, Leadership Foundation, Higher Education Statistics Agency, Higher Education Academy, Quality Assurance Agency, Office of Fair Access, Universities UK, Guild HE, Equality Challenge Unit and Unions. It is exactly in this area of wider stakeholder involvement that this the report was strangely quiet and although it clear identifies the voices of the aggrieved and disfranchised it offers no new insights on why there is limited progress in the sector, who is accountable and how we move forward collectively as a sector. Whether this is a result of the politics of funding, conscious omission or oversight, unfortunately for the future of an equitable working environment for all members of society this absence is significant.

It is unclear what impact the role of publicly funded stakeholders such as the Equality Challenge Unit, a policy think tank with a strap line ‘advancing equality and diversity within FE and HE’ has made for its £1.4 million annual budget since 2001. The Leadership Foundation enjoys a revenue stream of some £5.6 million but it is unclear what it has done to improve sustained BME representation in Higher Education since 2003. We have one BME Vice Chancellor in UK HE sector, who incidentally was not home grown but imported from South Africa. It remains unclear how we use the equality data gathered by HESA, whether it is utilisable for benchmarking purposes and how it feeds into organisational and sector change processes.

With the austerity measures shaping the sector, this may be a useful opportunity for us to review the number of stakeholder partners we have and how we can share best practice and leverage intellectual capital. It may be that some organisations are unable to challenge or shape practice in the sector and therefore are no longer fit for purpose. One could argue, a bit like the many other quangos that have recently been axed. The accountability of these organisations should be considered and some encouraged to close, merge and/or become part of HEFCE thus strengthening its regulatory role. As the sector embraces marketisation, it becomes crucial to provide data and tables to help student choice. A national league table could be developed covering the various equality strands such as race, gender, disability etc. This should include staff at various levels, promotion data, average salaries, disciplinary, grievances and legal settlements. Student attainment data could also be included. This performance data could then be used by staff and student s to make informed choices.

What is clear is that progress on Black and Minority Ethnic access to both student places (Russell group) and employment in HE falls well short of what it should be. BME staff in particular has watched the snail’s pace of progress slow down completely. At a time of crisis, it is even more important for leaders to challenge received wisdom, and have the courage to tackle inequalities in educational employment and provision, and to ensure that this remains at the heart of any institutional offer.

Professor Harinder Bahra

Professor Harinder Bahra is Professor Emeritus of Management and Diversity at Leeds Metropolitan University and Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire. He was Deputy Chair of the HE Race Forum from 2008-11 which contributed to the HEFCE funded ECU commissioned project. He writes in a personal capacity.