Considering comments made by the former Universities Minister (now Education Secretary), Michelle Donelan, urging universities to reconsider their commitment to the Race Equality Charter mark (REC) in order to enable free speech, we at the Open University Students Association believe such initiatives are integral to reducing barriers to Higher Education (HE), and are proud of the steps that we have taken to promote race equality.
The latest data around the Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) attainment gap shows that there is a gap of 13.2% between the number of BAME and White students being awarded a 2.1 degree or above. The causes of this gap are clear: an institutional culture which does not cultivate a sense of belonging for BAME students, a chronic lack of diversity amongst academic staff, a curricula which is Eurocentric and does not encapsulate the lived experience of marginalised students – the list can go on and on.
Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are intrenched in inequity and barriers. Because of this and the principle that education is a right for all, HEIs have a moral duty to act and uphold race equality.
The Minister suggested that a commitment to the REC may undermine commitments to free speech. I argue that it is precisely because we want to enable everyone’s liberty and right to free speech that we ought to encourage commitments to the REC and race equality more broadly.
As seen with the BAME attainment gap and its contributing factors, BAME students are at a structural disadvantage in HE. If we are to truly create an equal playing field where everyone’s liberties and rights to education and free speech are protected, then it is imperative that we in the sector commit to ridding these barriers. A commitment to the REC is a commitment to free speech and liberty.
At the Open University Students Association, we are proud of our steps to promote race equality and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) more broadly. In the summer of 2020, we launched our Institutional EDI Plan, which sets out our commitment to delivering evidence-informed change, keeping transparent with both Association staff and students, and remaining accountable to our members for our actions.
We set out plans to challenge our institutional culture, to increase awareness and build allyship, to create staff networks and to constantly monitor EDI data, as well as to remain committed to campaigning for an inclusive, anti-racist and intersectional curriculum.
We are proud to have worked with the Open University (OU) in creating The Student Charter, a declaration which sets out shared values for all within the OU community, with a specific commitment to an anti-racist and equitable learning experience.
In June of this year, we held our second successive annual EDI Conference to increase students’ understanding of EDI and effective allyship, and to help us in our efforts to embed EDI in everything the Students Association does. Through this, we were able to see the transformative impact it has on our students here, and the need to continue promoting and enhancing EDI and race equality across HE.
In the spirit of accessible, lifelong education, we remain committed to race equality and to promoting initiatives such as the REC. In my two years as Students Association President, I have seen first-hand both the importance and transformative impact of commitments to race equality. To rescind this would only take us backwards and undermine commitments to liberty and free speech for all.
President of the Open University Students Association