Advancing Equality in Higher Education

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By Professor Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice
Centre for Research in Race and Education, University of Birmingham

An exploratory study of the Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters

On Wednesday 13th March, Professor Kalwant Bhopal and Dr Holly Henderson participated in a dissemination event held at the University of Birmingham to discuss the findings from their research funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme which compared the Athena Swan (ASC) and Race Equality Charter (REC).

Key findings from the study discussed:
Positive change as a result of charter marks
Respondents saw the charter mark process as enabling positive change in advancing gender and race equality in universities. Respondents consistently discussed how engaging in the process had brought about change and gave examples of good practice that had resulted from working towards the charter marks.

The challenges involved in creating and sustaining change
Whilst participants in all HEIs identified how the charter marks had enabled change and gave examples of the kinds of change that had resulted from engaging with the charter marks; they also discussed the challenges that had emerged from the process. They spoke mainly about the danger of the charter marks encouraging ‘tick box’ or superficial change; the difficulty of achieving the kinds of institution-wide or even larger societal change that they saw as being required, and the struggle to engage and communicate messages of gender and race equality across to all of their colleagues.

Institutional responsibility for charter marks
For all of the institutions participating in the study, there were key issues regarding the overall institutional responsibility for the charter mark process. These issues included the necessity of gaining or sustaining support from the highest levels of senior management, the question of whether the charter mark fell within the remit of an academic or Human Resources department, and the question of whether there should be a designated and salaried position exclusively focused on the charter marks in the HEI.

Workload issues
The heavy administrative workload of the charter marks was discussed in all of the interviews and focus groups. In particular, participants were concerned about:
• The process itself and whether it could be adapted or changed;
• The problems of gaining access to the required data in their institution;
• The weight of the workload falling disproportionately on women and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) staff;
• How the work on charter marks was recognised in workload models;
• The hidden emotional labour involved in working on charter marks.

The ASC and the REC
In all interviews and focus groups, there were discussions of both charter marks. These discussions focused on issues ranging from the difficulties of managing both charter marks at once, the idea of competing or conflicting equalities agendas, the possibility that just one equality charter mark should replace the existing two, and the question of whether the REC was necessary for institutions in different geographical areas of the UK.

The event also included a presentation from Dr Sammy Li (Equality and Diversity Advisor for students, University of Birmingham). Dr Li provided an overview of student equality in higher education and specifically explored how the University of Birmingham is developing inclusive campus strategies for students. Dr Kamna Patel from UCL explored how as a woman of colour she practises equality work by using Black feminism and Critical Race Theory to identify systems of power and control which maintain women’s subordination. The presentations followed a lively debate which included questions and discussions on the implementation and impact of the charter marks.

Copies of the report are available here:

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