Academic precarity undermines the Race Equality Charter

Academic precarity undermines the Race Equality Charter

Drawing on an analysis of academic contracts and the numbers of ethnic minority staff in the UK, Roxana-Diana Baltaru argues the value gained from strategic commitments to race equality in UK universities is limited by precarious and unequal job prospects offered by some institutions.

Find a UK university that has not committed itself to achieving inclusion, equality and diversity. This is a nearly impossible task. Yet, demographic inequalities in the higher education sector persist despite long-standing institutional commitments to public equality duties and engagement in equality charters. This leads inevitably to questions: Do universities’ organizational commitments to inclusion work? Where do they help (if at all), and what is glossed over by the idea that universities can become inclusive if they are strategic about it?

To answer these questions, I took a closer look at the numbers of minority ethnic staff in universities, a demographic that continues to be underrepresented, especially at higher level contracts (the better paid and arguably more stable positions). Using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, I could assess how the share of minority ethnic staff has fared from 2012 to 2018, across over one hundred universities, some of which have been more “strategic” in tackling race inequalities than others, or rather the universities who joined the Race Equality Charter (REC). I wanted to see if membership in the REC has nurtured the share of minority ethnic staff in the subsequent years, and what other factors, beyond a university’s strategic engagement with the charter, are consequential for their representation.

If strategic commitments do not help, then what is actually being done about inclusion while we busy ourselves with them?

Why should we care if strategic commitments to inclusion work? Organizing for inclusion requires resources. Establishing inclusion-oriented units and hiring non-academic personnel to oversee the implementation of inclusion strategies (including, but not limited to, developing submissions to equality charters) requires greater administrative budgets. Alternatively, where equality tasks become part of the workload of academic staff, it costs time. Larger administrative workloads for academic staff mean less time to focus on teaching and learning. Finally, inclusion itself is at stake. If strategic commitments do not help, then what is actually being done about inclusion while we busy ourselves with them?

I found no statistically significant association between joining the Race Equality Charter and the share of minority ethnic staff in subsequent years. In other words, merely becoming a member of the REC does not make a university more (demographically) inclusive. However, on average, universities that are members of the REC exhibit larger shares of minority ethnic staff in higher level contracts, compared to those who are not. What do these mixed findings tell us about the usefulness of the REC? The charter brings together inclusive universities to lead by example, perhaps universities that were more ethnically diverse to begin with. If the charter has a rather rhetorical function, what does underpin the representation of minority ethnic staff at the structural level? Less minority ethnic staff work in the Russell Group universities than in all other universities, especially when it comes to the higher-level contracts. I also find that the more a university relies on fixed-term contracts, the less minority ethnic staff it has in higher-level contracts.

merely becoming a member of the REC does not make a university more (demographically) inclusive

The Race Equality Charter sends out a call to change institutional cultures towards tackling race inequality and enhancing the representation of ethnic minorities in universities. However, this call is likely to become lost in the stratified, increasingly precarious university sector, where minority ethnic staff work on lower-level, fixed-term contracts, and outside the prestigious tier of universities, more so than their White colleagues.

The limited role of inclusion-oriented organizational commitments should push governmental bodies, funding councils, and universities to strive for a better balance between formal commitments and more direct, structural measures. The second category may include scholarships aimed at people from underrepresented demographic backgrounds (especially in the most prestigious universities), and the long-demanded move away from fixed-term contracts to permanent contracts. We also need to carefully consider what the unlawfulness of affirmative action in the UK means for the ability of universities and grant holders to support historically underrepresented groups study and work in universities.


This post draws on the author’s article, Minority Ethnic Staff in Universities: Organisational Commitments, Reputation and the (Re)structuring of the Staff Body, published in Sociology.

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Image Credit: ‘The British Library’, By Yinka Shonibare, photograph Matt Harrop via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)