Our race equality work

President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts looks at the aims of our new race equality champions initiative in light of the extensive media coverage it has received.

Dear colleague

In last week’s staff update, we included a news item about our initiative to recruit race equality champions. Students in these roles will help to facilitate discussion and induction sessions in University residences and across campus, to help their peers better understand racism and its impact, and equip them with skills that can be applied in a variety of work and social settings.

The story has been covered in the media and we have had a number of requests from organisations including Universities UK and the Open University who are keen to learn more about how we are progressing race equality.

We have been concerned, however, by the inaccuracies about the initiative shared in the media and on social media, and the misconceptions that these have fuelled. It has been reported in some media outlets that the purpose of the race equality champions is to 'monitor' conversations, 'report' students and 'limit free speech'. It is important to stress that this is not their purpose - the initiative has been designed to facilitate debate in a way that is advocated by the Human Rights and Equality Commission’s guidance on freedom of expression in universities.

Content for the training and discussions has been developed by our students and academic experts and aims to encourage students to have healthy, open conversations, express their opinions and think critically about perceptions of racism in British society.

The initiative forms part of our Race Equality Strategy and action plan, launched in March 2019, which aims to improve the representation, progression and success of Black, Asian and Other Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff through the creation of an inclusive culture within the University.

I hope this helps to clarify our approach. If you would like to know more about our race equality work, we have developed some FAQs which you can find below. If you have any questions that are not answered below, please email externalrelations@sheffield.ac.uk

With best wishes
Koen

Our race equality work – your questions answered

What’s happening in the higher education sector with regards race equality?

In its 2019 annual review, the Office for Students (OfS) highlighted a continued need for a sector response to the issue of attainment for Black, Asian and Other Minority Ethnic (BAME) students. It highlighted research and reports that suggests universities should: show strong leadership, have conversations about race and racism, create racially diverse and inclusive environments, collect and analyse data and highlight what works.

The OfS also says, in relation to institutional practice, that “providers need to look at their own institutional practices and any possible systematic biases. The support they might offer to students could include: curriculum reviews, inclusive pedagogy, staff training and support services, to ensure practices are inclusive for all students.”

In October 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published the findings of its inquiry into racial harassment in publicly-funded universities in England, Scotland and Wales. Its report Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged painted a stark picture of the challenges the sector faces and the need for universities to adopt a proactive approach to addressing them.

The report warned that around a quarter of students from an ethnic minority background (24 per cent) said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course, with incidents of name-calling, physical attacks and racist material on campus.

Other common experiences of racism highlighted included subtle and nuanced acts, often known as microaggressions; being ignored or excluded from conversations or group activities; and being exposed to racist material or displays.

The equality watchdog said that many universities significantly underestimate the prevalence of racial harassment and therefore are not meeting their public sector equality duty obligations, which include the need to eliminate harassment and to foster good relations.

Universities UK (UUK) also produced a report in May 2019 titled #ClosingTheGap, which stressed the attainment gap which exists at the vast majority of universities between students of different ethnicities; something evidence suggests cannot be explained by a student’s background or prior qualifications.

The report featured a collection of case studies of what universities are already doing to close the gap on attainment differentials, and improve the experiences of BAME students at university. In particular, it said it is imperative that “difficult conversations about race, racial stereotypes, microaggressions and biases are held within universities, regardless of feelings of unease”.

What is our approach to race equality?

In Spring 2019, we launched our Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan aimed at improving the representation, progression and success of BAME students and staff through the creation of an inclusive culture within the University.

The strategy and plan followed extensive consultation with BAME students and staff. It includes a range of work, including: improving reporting mechanisms around racial harassment; a review of learning, teaching and assessment practices to develop and ensure an inclusive curriculum; and support for the University’s BAME student and staff networks and committees.

One of the key objectives of the strategy and action plan is to close the differential attainment gap for BAME students at the University, which stood at 8.5 per cent in 2018.

While this is a multi-faceted problem, feedback from our Students’ Union BME Committee identified detrimental student behaviour as a key issue to address. This is supported by academic studies that suggest a sense of belonging and feelings of self-esteem among their peers are contributory factors to the BAME attainment gap.

We led a collaborative project, Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration, with King’s College London and the University of Portsmouth from March 2017 to September 2019 to investigate the extent to which an enhanced personal tutoring system might help reduce the attainment gap for BAME students and those from lower socio economic groups. In response to the feedback and academic research outlined above, our Race Equality Strategy included an agreed action to provide an anti-racism induction to new students of the University. Our Access and Participation Plan 2020/21 – 2024/25 addresses actions taken to address the attainment gap.

What is the race equality awareness induction?

Our race equality awareness induction is delivered to all new students. It seeks to equip students with information and confidence to enable them to have positive discussions about race with their peers.

This includes:

  • A five-minute film aimed at gently introducing new students to the key concepts of racism
  • Departmental induction lectures, which explore perceptions of racism in further detail
  • Workshops that offer students the opportunity to have healthy, open discussions, express their opinions and think critically about issues of race and racism in the UK
What impact has our race equality induction had?

Students who have participated in the race equality induction by watching the film and attending the lectures have reported the following outcomes:

  • 84 per cent say they understand their role in helping to achieve the goals of the University's Race Equality Strategy
  • 97 per cent are clear that the University does not tolerate racism, discrimination and prejudice
  • 85 per cent are more confident about their understanding of racism and microaggression
  • 82 per cent are more confident about addressing racism, discrimination and prejudice
What is the race equality champion initiative?

To deliver the race equality induction outlined above, we have recruited some students to act as race equality champions.

The champions are trained to lead healthy conversations in University residences and across campus, to help their peers understand racism and its impact and equip them with skills that can be applied in a variety of work and social settings.

Content for the discussions has been developed by our students and academic experts, and is designed to encourage students to have healthy, open discussions, express their opinions and think critically about perceptions of racism in British society. The induction and roles have been designed to facilitate debate in a way that is advocated by the Human Rights and Equality Commission’s guidance on freedom of expression in universities.

The champions will also provide optional sessions for student society leaders. The aim is to equip society leaders with the tools to ensure that everyone is treated fairly with equality of opportunity, not only within their society, but the wider community, and to ensure all students are aware of the support available to them.

How are the race equality champions linked to our Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan?

The race equality champions form part of our Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan, which aims to improve the representation, progression and success of Black, Asian and Other Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff through the creation of an inclusive culture within the University.

One of the key objectives within this was to close the attainment gap between BAME and white students at the University - which stood at 8.5 per cent in 2018. While this is a multi-faceted problem, culture change was identified as a key factor in supporting this, with one approach to tackle it being the provision of anti-racism inductions for students.

Feedback from BAME students has directly identified behaviour as an issue, a factor evidenced by cases identified through the University’s student complaints and conduct procedure. The strategy therefore included an agreed action to provide anti-racism inductions to new students of the University, something that was implemented in September 2019.

A subgroup on Anti-Racism Awareness and Training was created to deliver this action and develop a comprehensive approach to anti-racism training for all new undergraduate students for the 2019–2020 academic year and beyond. The subgroup, which is championed by Susan Bridgeford, Director of Student Support Services, reports to the Race Equality Steering Group, chaired by Professor Susan Fitzmaurice, Vice-President and Head of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.

Members of the subgroup are diverse and consist of academic and professional services staff, students and the Students’ Union.

How do universities support freedom of speech?

The Office for Students has a definition of free speech which includes all lawful freedom of expression. Within this definition, it highlights that English law does restrict speech that can be defined as harassment or incitement to hatred, but it does give people the right to say things which may shock or offend.

In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission shared targeted guidance to help universities interpret and implement free speech policies in a way that promotes debate, helps people address discrimination and builds strong, positive communities.

We are committed to upholding freedom of speech within the law and we promote a culture of respectful debate where our students and staff can hold, express and challenge a wide range of views. Our guidance on maintaining free speech includes a detailed procedure around inviting external speakers to campus.

Read a briefing about the University's race equality work (PDF)