Academic freedom at British universities is under threat from a race equality badge that rewards institutions for “decolonising” their curriculum and for cracking down on “microaggressions”, professors fear.

Over 60 of the country’s leading higher education institutions – including Oxford, Cambridge and the majority of members of the prestigious Russell Group – have signed up to the Race Equality Charter (REC) which is awarded by Advance HE.

Universities pay Advance HE thousands of pounds in membership fees and in return are given training and guidance on how to address “institutional racism, white privilege and power and addressing racial microaggressions”.

Through the REC, universities are rewarded with a bronze or silver badge for initiatives such as decolonising the curriculum, improving anonymous reporting functions, and rolling out unconscious bias training.

Advice on stamping out ‘microaggressions’

Advance HE – which receives millions of pounds in taxpayer funding – has published extensive resources on how universities can tackle racism on campus.

This includes advice on how to stamp out racial “microaggressions” such as “avoiding eye-contact” with someone from an ethnic minority group or interrupting someone during a meeting.

Other examples include cutting in front of someone in a queue or “invading” someone’s personal space.

Academics have warned that the REC – which was first conceived in 2015 but has gained traction in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests – is shaping a culture on campus that is “inimical” to academic freedom.

Dr Arif Ahmed, a philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University, said the charter has created a “virtue signalling competition” between institutions.

‘Divisive’ anonymous reporting

He said anonymous reporting tools were “divisive” and had a “chilling effect” on free speech, adding that promoting the concept of microaggressions was “potentially disastrous” because it meant that academics and students would be “constantly checking their everyday behaviour”.

Dr Arif explained that prohibitions on verbal microaggressions could “obviously suppress free speech and academic freedom”.

Earlier this year, Cambridge University took down a website where dons could be reported for "raising an eyebrow" at students following an uproar from dons. The vice-Chancellor said the site had been published in error and placed the anonymous reporting tool under review. 

Meanwhile, Exeter University has been accused of Soviet-style censorship after requiring new humanities courses to “move away” from a “white, Eurocentric” curriculum.

Other academics have gone further and described the REC as the “source” of threats to free speech on campus.

“This is an organisation that is incentivising universities to ramp up the ideological temperature of their campus, structures, procedures, disciplines,” one lecturer told The Telegraph.

“The most obvious way in which it can distort university culture is through teaching. For academics, freedom of speech must mean freedom to teach. But Advance HE is catalysing central control over content by telling us that our curriculum is too white, too male and too eurocentric.”

‘Climate of fear’

One academic said that there is a “climate of fear” where those who disagree with the microaggression and decolonising agenda are afraid to speak out.

“It is being channelled from the top via Advance HE, then picked up and disseminated by HR departments which have the power to conduct disciplinary proceedings and make life difficult for promotions.”

Advance HE runs training for universities on how to “decolonise” their identity, curriculum and the entire institution. Another manual advises institutions on how to tackle white privilege and identifies the concept of “white sanction” where “white people are the gamekeepers who use their privilege to ‘help’ people of colour”.

One professor explained that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, many universities were looking for an “off the shelf” solution to prove their anti-racist credentials. Institutions often display their commitment to the REC prominently in their promotional material.

Advance HE’s income from institutional membership fees has more than doubled in the past five years and it has received over £27 million since 2016 from membership fees. The organisation has also received over £11 million of taxpayer funding since 2016.

Sir John Hayes, a former education minister and chair of the Common Sense Group of MPs, said Advance HE appears to promote an agenda which is “at best misleading and at worst deeply sinister”.

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He added: “These deeply disturbing reports from academics suggest that Advance HE is pursuing a highly ideological, very contestable and potentially extremely damaging agenda. Not a penny of taxpayer money should be spent on this organisation.”

Alison Johns, chief executive of Advance HE, said that racial harassment on campus is widespread and that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff are underrepresented at senior management levels of universities.

“Recent events have highlighted the existence and abhorrence of racism in UK society – including, regrettably, in higher education,” she said.

Ms Johns said the REC helps universities to close the gap in outcomes between black and white students, adding: “It’s a framework through which each participating institution can work to identify and self-reflect on its own institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of BAME staff and students.

“Created with the higher education sector in 2015, the REC is a well-established framework through which institutions can develop their own plans to create inclusive teaching and research environments and tackle racism. We support and applaud their efforts to do so.”