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8 July 2022

For people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds working in UK academia, reaching the highest tiers of institutional leadership is frequently elusive, despite equivalent qualifications and diverse lived experience. Being nominated for opportunities by peers is something that is often taken for granted by individuals from privileged groups, where obstacles to progression are seldom encountered. So, what does analysis of data from REF 2021 tell us about how people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities have been able to contribute to, and assess, research quality?

The REF 2021 Analysis of full REF 2021 panel membership report notes the disappointing representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic research leaders and experts on assessment panels. In the first call for nominations, just 1% of those nominated were Black academics, with 0% appointed, and 6% were Asian nominees, with 5% appointed. This compared with 90% of white nominees, with 92% appointed. In the second call, following advice from EDAP on ensuring a diverse pool of nominations, the percentage of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic nominees and appointees increased to 12% and 11% respectively, against 89% of white appointees. As noted in the EDAP final report, while the percentage of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic academics on REF 2021 panels reflects their numbers amongst the professorial group, it falls short of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff numbers across the general UK academic pipeline.

What should be done to ensure that research assessment panel selection becomes representative of the diverse body of research staff in UK universities? We have observed excellent examples, where institutions demonstrated in their environment statements that, right from the very top, enthusiasm for ensuring inclusivity was as much about race and ethnicity as other protected characteristics. The best exemplars showed how institutional values were conceptually and practically aligned to a suite of interventions that were about building inclusive cultures and research capacity for all groups. In these cases, there was evidence of institutions critically reflecting on, and evaluating, their own progress. However, in contrast, among too many institutions, there was a tendency to privilege gender in EDI narratives and a failure to show how institutional values were linked to inclusivity at a Unit of Assessment level. Here there seemed to be missed opportunities, if not disconnects. We ask whether it is easier to make strong value-based statements at a higher organisational level, but more difficult to demonstrate impact on the ground? These disconnects seemed most apparent in those units that had a clear research focus on structural racism and ethnicity but seemed to overlook equality and diversity issues for their own research cultures, staff and students.

We would like to note the powerful contribution that equality impact assessments (EIAs) can make to supporting reflective and reflexive institutional improvement and change. For some institutions they were used throughout the REF process to test and challenge the depth, breadth, and pace of progress. For others, conducting EIAs seemed more reductionist: just another box to tick. We believe that EIAs could offer institutions bespoke tools for the measurement of change that will inform organisational improvement strategies.

So, what do our examples say about fairness and openness in current research systems, especially the challenge of increasing representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic research communities in decision making?  For us they speak to the need for much more focused change. Firstly, the sector could take the bold move of setting targets for enhanced Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic representation in a range of senior decision-making contexts, for example REF panels. Secondly, the sector could do more to increase representation of those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds in research active roles, by incentivising change, and amplifying and disseminating good practice/what works in the drive to build inclusive research cultures. This can be achieved, for example, by encouraging research secondments and shadowing schemes, as well as the development of specific leadership skills through virtual academies. Other examples of initiatives include the Wellcome Trust-Advance HE ‘Success on the Board’ that encourages appointments to Boards of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and disabled staff, and the StellarHE programme which shows evidence of transformative actions.  Finally, to move forward, we want to stress the important role that we can all play in allyship and encouraging personal responsibility in challenging structural racism. In this way we can shift the narrative and provide the conditions for inclusivity in research to actively support our colleagues. Our work on EDAP has clearly shown us that such actions can make a difference, alongside sector and institutional change.