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Updates & insights

The world of charters, pledges and commitments in UK universities and higher education

Levi Pay, director and principal consultant at Plinth House, provides a perspective on the many institutional charters, pledges, kitemarks, concordats and commitments adopted within UK universities and the higher education sector, to set the scene for our newly published collated list of these schemes.

On issues from academic integrity and inclusivity through to sustainability and staff and student wellbeing, there is no shortage of organisations ready to guide us if we sign on the dotted line. Over the past ten years, we have seen higher education institutions, with ever greater frequency and zeal, reaching for a growing number of externally verified (“verified” sometimes used loosely) ways to demonstrate our institutional values, priorities, and policy commitments.

For those who want the "TL;DR" version of this article:

Charters, charters, everywhere, And how our budgets shrink! Charters, charters, everywhere, Nor any stop to think.

Our take at Plinth House - on the many charters and pledges that UK universities and higher education institutions can and do sign up to - can be encapsulated in the above stanza (shamelessly adulterated from, and with apologies to, Coleridge).

But what does this trend towards ever more kitemarks and institutional badges tell us about the sector? Are there risks in adopting any of these charters and commitments? And, at a time when university budgets are as tight as they are, should we be reconsidering or becoming more selective when it comes to committing our institutions to some of these public pledges?

Icons representing different charters and pledges

Direct and downstream costs

At their core, charters – along with pledges, concordats, commitments and kitemarks – are formal and generally public commitments made by institutions to uphold specific principles and practices.

Our institutions may sometimes be expected to meet qualifying criteria before being named as a signatory or recipient. In other cases, becoming a signatory can be as easy as getting the VC’s signature on a piece of paper, with the real work following downstream. Often, what follows the initial commitment or award is an ongoing requirement to demonstrate transparency and accountability through regular reporting on progress towards charter goals.

Sometimes these schemes come with a direct financial cost, such as a registration or assessment fee or annual subscription. In other cases, the main or only cost is the (sometimes considerable) workload involved in meeting the relevant criteria to gain the badge or follow through on the commitments we’ve signed up to.

With many charters, the time staff must spend collating application forms, writing award submissions, producing progress reports and the like should not be understated. Any financial cost of signing up can pale in comparison with the time costs involved - or, more specifically, with the opportunity cost of the other activities that the colleagues involved could have pursued instead.

In our experience, while great things can flow from an institutional commitment to one of these schemes, where they give structure and coherence to work we were already planning and resourced to deliver, in some cases, we can find ourselves side-tracked into ‘feeding’ the charter – doing work we would not otherwise be prioritising just to gain or sustain a particular marker.

“We’re the experts”

Often, the promise with these schemes is access to external expertise. For a financial outlay of a few pounds each day (a price which rarely reflects the internal workload required), an HEI can be promised access to support and guidance on a particular topic.

We see this particularly in areas such as equality, diversity and inclusion-related charters, where we might be tempted to see the equivalent of the price of a couple of coffees a day as a price worth paying if it repays us with access to specialist advice and resources.

Sometimes, these schemes also come with benchmarking or feedback mechanisms, inviting the self-described experts to assess our institutional performance (in ways that cry out for a future FOI request compelling us to disclose the details, even if the assessment was initially sold to us as confidential).

Of course, it is worth considering the rationale behind these schemes, beyond the values they extol. Many of them are set up and maintained by advocacy groups and campaigning organisations, which have, in some cases, grown and evolved over the years - from small, focused bodies to large corporations and charities, buoyed by topical focus or state support.

As someone who used to work for Stonewall myself (long before the launch of the organisation’s Diversity Champion scheme), I remember finding it a little odd to watch as the organisation I remembered having four or five staff members in a small office in Westminster expanded into a much larger organisation, with over 150 staff members at one point – the growth funded largely through Diversity Champion scheme subscriptions.

Charters and pledge schemes lend themselves to being very scalable income streams. Produce some written resources, notionally give each member institution a “lead adviser” or a “liaison manager”, and watch as the repeat fees come in, year after year. If there were no money to be made from these schemes, there would, I am sure of it, be far fewer of them. In a harsher assessment, these schemes can be money-spinners that can even distort the very purpose of an organisation away from charity or advocacy, towards corporate expansion for its own sake.

Does this matter? Well, perhaps not if the expertise we receive in return for our subs is high-quality and justifies the cost. But what if the advice we receive is confused, flawed or simply wrong? In the increasingly complex area of equality and inclusion, universities have found that the cost we can end up paying for joining these schemes can far exceed both the financial subscription and the staff time involved. If our teams act on the advice of an issuing body, and we find ourselves facing legal difficulties or reputational damage as a result, it is more likely to be our own institutions – rather than the organisation that dispensed the advice – that face the consequences.

Consider the experience universities have had with the Stonewall Diversity Champion scheme (and its accompanying benchmarking scheme, the Workplace Equality Index). There has been criticism for several years now that, through these schemes, Stonewall has been encouraging and guiding its member institutions to go beyond the law and adopt a very one-sided approach to issues of sex and gender. This does not appear to have served us well. Or consider the way in which the Race Equality Charter has been linked with limitations on free speech on campus.

Unintended consequences

While we may be signing up to a charter primarily with external expertise in our sights, we might not be thinking about the extent to which we are also setting ourselves up publicly for accusations of hypocrisy if, in the eyes of others, we subsequently fail to live up to the values embodied by that charter. Charters, kitemarks and pledges are public by design, and this can play in any number of ways. One example of a charter being used against the sector is the way in which Athena Swan membership has been cited by those raising concerns about employment practices at UK universities.

If what we are committing to in a particular charter is non-controversial, clear and deliverable, these problems tend not to exist or be manageable. However, if what we are signing up to is contested, controversial, unclear or difficult for our institution to live up to in practice, this can hand people – whether students, staff members, other organisations or journalists – an easy public win when it comes to exposing or challenging our organisation’s actions or performance.

There is something of a paradox at play here. If we, as institutions, already have enough expertise internally to understand the potential implications and pitfalls of our membership of a particular charter (which, I suggest, we need to have before we should decide to join any charter), then we probably also have enough expertise to manage without joining the charter and, instead, deliver any work we need to deliver without external support.

In my own time as head of equality for a university, I avoided charter marks and public kitemarks. It never seemed sensible to me to be spending our very limited budget on buying in expertise that it was already our job as a internal team to provide. Joining one of these schemes always seemed to me like an admission that we lacked the very expertise that we were hired to have. And the more I met with representatives of organisations selling the charters and kitemarks (conversations which normally involved a lot of us saying, “Well, the HE sector is different…” or “That’s not really relevant in our context…”), the more I felt that the money and time would be better spent putting our own expertise into practice, rather than outsourcing decision-making or spending time reporting to an external body about what we were planning to do.

I remember, in one university I worked in, being sold a disability kitemark and receiving the advice that it was very important that we, as a university, followed the “social model of disability”, as though this model might be new to me – to which my response was, “As it happens, two of the leading academics who devised the social model of disability work in this building, two floors up…would you like to meet them?”

Not all kitemarks come from people or organisations lacking an understanding of our sector, but many do. Reaching for expertise from external campaigning organisations unfamiliar with higher education has always struck me as slightly odd for a sector that already has so much internal intellectual capital at our fingertips.

“A whole-university approach” and “Training for all staff”

A common expectation placed on us as institutions, when signing up to many of the charters out there, is that we will work hard to train all of our staff and increase awareness of the issue at the heart of the charter. It is increasingly common, for example, to see higher education-specific charters asking our institutions to demonstrate a “whole university approach” to the issue at hand.

An abstract organisational chart

As examples, the EmilyTest Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Charter is designed to ensure that “GBV prevention, intervention and support is ingrained throughout the whole University”. The University Mental Health Charter is geared towards all universities adopting “a whole-university approach to mental health”. The Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers explains the importance of “coordinating Concordat implementation across the whole institution”. Sign up for various charters at once and, before we know it, we’ve committed our “whole institution” to be simultaneously engaged in, and dedicated to, numerous different priorities. Even if these priorities are compatible, there has to be a potential bandwidth problem here.

The issues most charters promote are important and merit attention. I would not dispute the importance of higher education institutions getting our mental health support, our approach to gender-based violence, or the career development of our researchers right. But we should ask serious questions about the extent to which our institutions – whose core activities, after all, are teaching, research and knowledge transfer – really have the capacity to deliver a “whole-university” or “whole-institution” approach to a wide range of very specific issues, all at the same time.

This is not a call for shedding all charters; it is a suggestion that we need to be selective. We need to choose our charters well, and ensure we have the time and resources to make proper use of any memberships and that we can follow through fully with any required actions.

Setting your course - a snapshot of the schemes on offer

At Plinth House, we recently captured a snapshot of the various schemes that UK universities have signed up to.  Some of these are specific to higher education and only accept universities or higher education institutions as signatories, while others are much broader, counting universities among their more varied list of members.

A screenshot of Plinth House's new charters in higher education list

Our list can be used as a reference point, if there’s a charter or kitemark you can’t quite remember the name of or want to know more about.  However, our purpose in collating this list was primarily to demonstrate just how many of these schemes there are.

It is all too easy if we are a senior manager in a higher education institution, when contacted by a charity or organisation promoting one of these charters in isolation, to feel tempted to sign up. It can seem like a quick win, or the FOMO can kick in – particularly if we are told that our close competitor institutions have already signed up.  And it can be easy for one part of our institution to decide to sign up to such a scheme, without fully understanding the workload requirements that would fall to the wider institution.

Take it from someone who has been there, little is more frustrating than being a university staff member, charged by senior management with scrabbling around at year-end for what to put in an annual progress report – all to make sure that the institution can, next year, hold onto an institutional badge that you never quite saw the point of in the first place.

Perhaps some of these charters are quick wins.  Perhaps some of these schemes do, genuinely, go with the grain of our institutions and enhance the quality of core activities, such as learning, teaching and knowledge transfer.  However, the schemes in our list vary considerably, and, in some cases, they can and do lead to compliance risks, reputational exposure, and high costs and workloads.  

At a time when universities face an incredibly challenging context and real financial strain, is the priority really earning and keeping another public badge?  Personally, I would much rather see us switching off some of these schemes – with our universities picking, at most, two or three of them and, thereby, ensuring we have the time and resources to deliver on any “whole-institution” commitments.  An audit of all institutional memberships and pledges, and their associated costs, would be a useful and revealing starting point for many HEIs.

If there is one simple ask here, it is this: pause and consider.  Ask questions of our current memberships, and of any suggested new ones.  What are the full costs (including in staff time) of our membership in year one and future years?  What are the risks, as well as the benefits?  Does this scheme underpin our core activities as an institution?  Should this replace another charter, rather than adding to the workload? In essence, of all the schemes out there that we might choose to go for this year, why this one and why now?

Our snapshot list of charters, pledges and kitemarks and commitments which higher education institutions have signed up to (a total of 50, at the time of initial publication) is now available on our website.  We welcome additions or updates to the list, which can be sent to us using the form at the top of the same page.


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