7 November 2023

How ‘equality’ laws became the enemy of academic freedom


There is an Orwellian tendency on the Left to hide illiberal measures behind moral truisms. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) strategies, now ubiquitous among public companies and institutions, are a clear example. Under the cover of these seemingly benign objectives, an expanding bureaucracy has undermined meritocracy and sapped productivity in the UK. 

The Equality Act of 2010, passed under a Labour Government, supports a highly interventionist approach to diversity in the workforce. It is not enough for a public institution to not be discriminatory; they must also actively promote people sharing a protected characteristic in sectors where their participation is disproportionately low. 

Ultimately this requires reverse discrimination in hiring practices. Applicants for the same job or grant are no longer competing against the same standards; rather, they are competing against other people in the same category based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Their chances also depend on which quota needs to be filled to meet EDI targets.

The irony is that there tends to be very little diversity of opinion among the expert panels now routinely appointed to advise on EDI strategies. In fact, these experts tend to be aligned on more extreme political views. This has been especially problematic for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), now consumed by a media firestorm over the extremism of one of its EDI advisory groups.  

Only five days after Research England appointed its new expert advisory group on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), the research fund was forced to suspend the group because its members publicly sympathised with Hamas supporters in the UK. The Secretary of State for Science, Michelle Donelan, wrote an open letter to the head of UKRI, which oversees Research England, to express her outrage at ‘extremist views’ posted on Twitter (X) by its EDI advisors. 

According to Donelan’s letter, the Chair of the EDI advisory group ‘amplified’ a statement on Twitter (X) that suggested Hamas attacks were a response to Israel’s ‘genocide and apartheid’, while another member called the Government’s plans to crack down on Hamas support in the UK ‘disturbing’. The head of the UKRI, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, promptly asked Research England to suspend the group pending further investigation. 

The purpose of Research England’s EDI advisory group, along with similar expert advisory groups across the arts and science research councils, is to act as a ‘critical friend’, advocating for EDI in the higher education sector in England, and ensuring Research England activities support a ‘balanced portfolio’. 

There is a clear imbalance, however, in the very composition of these EDI advisory groups. Most of the advisors are essentially professional EDI consultants whose research and/or careers have been focused on issues of race and gender identity in employment. Crucially, they also tend to share radical views. Both the Chair and the Deputy Chair of the Research England advisory group, for example, have led projects to ‘decolonise higher education’

Leyser’s decision to suspend the group has been met with outrage from University College Union (UCU), the trade union for UK academics and researchers, who argue this was a ‘capitulation’ to an attack on academic freedom. In retaliation, the union has called on its members to resign from all advisory board positions associated with UKRI.  

Heeding the call of the UCU, many academics have now publicly resigned from Peer Review Colleges. The work assigned to them has to be reallocated, inevitably causing serious delays to research publications – delays that will be particularly harmful for academics early in their careers, who need publications in order to gain employment. 

EDI has become a serious drain on time and resources for researchers in the UK, not least because it has diverted so much attention toward political controversies at the expense of the research itself. 

As Karl Williams wrote for CapX, the UKRI, which is the umbrella organisation for the UK’s research councils, is responsible for about 80% of government spending on research in the UK – roughly £8bn, funded by taxpayers. Much of these resources are being diverted toward lengthy reports on EDI strategy and data collection. 

There is no systematic data in any of these reports on the number of employees involved in EDI strategy or how much this costs. But for comparison, the salary of a Research Portfolio Manager for EDI is roughly equivalent to what it would take to fund a PhD in Oncology at the University of Cambridge. 

Also indicative are the EDI Engagement Fellowships offered by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Nearly £1m has been allocated toward these fellowships, awarded for research on topics such as ‘the forgotten relationship between the city of Bath and Ethiopian culture’. 

In protest against the decision to suspend Research England’s EDI advisory board, many researchers have pointed to studies that show a correlation between EDI policies and productivity. One frequently cited report by Deloitte suggests that ‘perceived team performance’ increased by 17% corresponding to an ‘increase in feelings of inclusion’. 

These small improvements – which may in any event be achieved without bureaucratic intervention – would certainly be outweighed by the time and resources allocated to EDI strategies, and of course by the number of researchers resigning over controversies stirred up by politically divisive EDI advisory groups.    

EDI strategies tend to deal with how things look at the top, rather than encouraging diversity from the ground up. Diversity in UK research and innovation would be better served by investment in education. A recent report by the Department of Education highlights the need for more funding in STEM subjects at schools across the UK and for more scholarships and bursaries, particularly for students living with disabilities or in deprived areas. 

The Research England EDI advisory board clearly illustrates the problem with a top-down approach to diversity. Funding for research and innovation in the UK has become tied up with EDI ‘experts’ who are broadly aligned on controversial political issues, and who seek to impose diversity on their own terms. Diversity must be protected, not enforced; otherwise, one form of discrimination will simply be replaced by another, undermining the goal of true meritocracy that would promote talent regardless of identity.   

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Madeleine Armstrong is a research intern at the Centre for Policy Studies. She recently completed a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, focusing on the political thought of Edmund Burke.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.