Wessex Scene takes a look at how the University of Southampton has sought to improve the wellbeing of its BAME staff members and achieve equal treatment for BAME staff and students.
The Race Equality Charter
This March, Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Christopher Snowden (above) signed the University up to the Race Equality Charter (REC). Snowden said on signing that the Charter ‘will assist with making our University a truly welcoming and inclusive place and a University of choice for BAME students and staff’.
The REC was created in 2016 by the charity the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU). The ECU’s core mission statement is to ‘support universities and colleges to build an inclusive culture that values the benefits of diversity, to remove barriers to progression and success for all staff and students, and to challenge and change unfair practices that disadvantage individuals or groups’. The REC has 5 guiding principles:
- Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education, with racism an everyday part of society.
- The UK higher education system’s full potential can only be unlocked if it takes advantage of the talent of the whole population and ‘individuals from all ethnic backgrounds can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords’.
- Solutions to racial inequalities should aim to achieve ‘long-term institutional culture change’, not just changing the individual.
- Minority ethnic staff and students are not a homogenous group and thus each person will have their own experience. This should be reflected in analysing data and developing solutions.
- Finally, all individuals have multiple identities and the intersectionality of theses identities should be considered where possible.
Prior to signing, the University crunched quantitative data on its student recruitment, attainment and postgraduate prospects. Based on the ECU’s own summary of the trends in its annuals statistical reports, analysing the demographics of the higher education workforce, there has been a steady increase in the numbers of Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) students in higher education overall since 2003-04. However, leaving rates for BME academics and students are typically higher than for White staff and students, while BME students also have a lower likelihood of obtaining a degree classification of 2:1 or above.
The University of Southampton was the 40th member of the REC. The ECU requires that within 3 years of joining the Charter, the higher education institute must have at least applied for a REC award. Thus, when committing to the charter, the University confirmed their pledge to apply for a Bronze Award within 3 years.
A Bronze Award is the first award a signatory of the Charter can receive, with Silver award status the most senior accolade currently attainable. When the University does apply for Bronze Award status, it will need to provide a submission document and action plan detailing how it intends to promote racial diversity and ensure equality of treatment regardless of ethnicity for staff and students. Even if successful, the award status isn’t permanent – it must be renewed every three years – meaning that an institution must maintain high standards to be worthy of recognition.
At the time of signing the Charter, the University had already conducted a study of its own academic staff concerning why BAME staff are less likely to apply for promotion and stated that it was ‘working to implement the recommendations’ from that study. Additionally, SUSU, the University and other organisations co-organised a highly successful debate on 18th October featuring students and guest speakers entitled ‘Our Curriculum: Is it Diverse Enough?’, in the Cube, SUSU Building. The debate aimed to help push forward University efforts to diversify the curriculum it offers its students. This also formed the focal point of a host of events and initiatives SUSU ran to mark Black History Month, which VP Student Communities Emily Harrison coordinated.
Shine BAME Support Staff Network
Launched in May 2017, this network ‘aims to raise awareness of and promote race equality and cultural diversity at the University’. All BAME staff, whether academic or in the professional services, are welcome to join, as are postgraduate research students. The network is currently chaired by Dr. Pathik Parthak, Director of the Social Impact Lab. It aims to hold events throughout the year promoting cultural diversity, while it’s also launched a BAME Buddy Scheme to enable BAME members of staff to meet with other BAME staff for ‘friendly, non-judgmental conversations about their experiences at the university’. However, it’s to be stressed that this is in no way a substitute to the University of Southampton Diversity team, who Shine recommends as the more appropriate port of call for reporting harassment, discrimination or victimisation based on race or other characteristics.
New Harassment Tool and Swift Investigation of a Racist Incident
In February, SUSU launched its own harassment tool, to enable students and staff to report incidents of harassment in a confidential manner, whether based on race, gender or other. This was organised by SUSU in collaboration with the Stand Up To Racism society.
Finally, evidencing the University’s serious intent towards rooting out racism on campus, were its swift actions last year in response to the alarming story of how a first year Computer Science module shared google spreadsheet had been defaced with offensive racist and homophobic remarks. The module lecturer immediately passed the incident onto the University authorities as a disciplinary offence. The police were also informed and a thorough internal formal investigation was held into the incident. However, at the time of writing, the perpetrator(s) hadn’t been found and David Tyoember, a BAME student who was on the Google spreadsheet, had expressed criticism of the University’s approach.
In summary, our University (and students’ union) have taken concrete steps in the past few years to promote diversity and ensure equal treatment of all staff and students, irrespective of their ethnicity. However, further progress may be required before the University receives the REC Bronze Award, which will mark a step in the right direction.