So, I’ve been here at King’s almost eight months now and I’ve penned a few blogs, featured in a range of articles and made the odd public speech. It’s been a really positive experience and I’ve been pleased with how progressively receptive I have found the audiences at Kings and Kings overall as an institution. However, two recent occurrences have forced me to reflect on the fact that I have taken for granted a basic understanding of the legal foundations of equality, diversity and inclusion and  that my assumptions are unsound.

The first of the incidents took place when King’s  hosted the annual Times Higher Education Summit, a large-scale event attended by senior figures in higher education from around the world. Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, the THE  top ranked university in the world, gave a keynote speech which later made headlines for comments about senior leadership salaries and the current government.

In addition to there were some other comments which particularly grabbed my attention:

“I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don’t feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.

And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable.

If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.

Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do.”

While her comments regarding salaries and politics had obviously ruffled enough feathers to made headlines, looking over the morning front pages there was little to suggest that what she had said about ‘being comfortable’ with homophobia had received the same level of public outcry. In smaller pockets of the internet, the Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign openly challenged and criticised her comments saying that they were “angered and dismayed” by the remarks, however aside from this there was to, my surprise and disappointment, very little external attention paid to this statement.

On one level, I found this disconcerting due to a wealth of evidence that LGBTQ+ people can and do suffer all sorts of discrimination, bullying and harassment in the home, at school, university and the workplace, which can culminate in higher rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide. On another, I found this unacceptable because I feel that it contravenes the requirements placed on her by the law.

There is a line, in my view, between individuals being entitled to personal opinions, and what they choose to express and is deemed to be permissible in different contexts and specifically a university learning context.

The second of the incidents which got me thinking about where people’s tolerance/ignorance/knowledge levels were, was a student event at Loughborough halls which included as part of the festivities, organizing a slave market as part of “Fresher’s entertainment’. Following this, Times Higher Education magazine published a cartoon making light of this.

So, it strikes me that it would be helpful to cover some of the basics of our legal obligations as a university, a public institution, an educator and an employer. Vision 2029 clearly sets out an ambition to be extraordinary but it is, I think, useful, to remember the basics upon which that ambition rests – the legal requirement to be accessible to and inclusive of everyone.

Let’s start with Public Sector Equality Duty…

The Equality Act 2010 holds that all public authorities including universities, must uphold the Public Sector Equality Duty. This means that in addition to their duty not to discriminate against you, public authorities are required to proactively work to ensure that their services, policies and practices do not enable discrimination and or disadvantage people who have ‘protected characteristics’.

These are characteristics that are protected in relation to the public sector equality duty:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Marriage and civil partnership are also protected characteristics under the Equality Act but it’s not covered by the public sector equality duty.

The Public Sector Equality Duty  means that King’s must take into account the impact a policy or decision might have on people who are protected under the Equality Act. Which is basically everyone in one way or another!  If we don’t and discrimination occurs, we can ultimately be challenged in the courts and for an institution such as King’s, there would be a lot at stake and immediate reputational consequences.

So what does that mean we here at King’s have to do?

When we carry out our functions, we must, the law says, and have ’due regard’ or think about how we also proactively:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination
  • advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who don’t
  • foster or encourage good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who don’t.

What does it really mean?

Some groups of people who share a protected characteristic, like race or sexual orientation, may suffer a particular disadvantage or have particular requirements.

To address inequalities that exist outside of the institution, institutions may take legal action and treat some groups more favourably than others to ensure that their experience within the institution is more equal.

Legally, this duty means that King’s must:

  • remove or reduce disadvantages suffered by people because of a protected characteristic
  • meet the needs of people with protected characteristics
  • encourage people with protected characteristics to participate in public life and other activities.

To bring this back to the Loughborough student event, Times Higher Education and Louise Richardson’s comments. Times Higher Education are not bound by the PSED – so whilst they are hugely influential I can’t hold them to account using the legislation. The position in relation to the student society is also more ambiguous and something to explore in the future.  But the position with the Oxford VC leaves me wondering how, or if, she thought about how her statements matched with this duty? I really can’t see how her comments fit with the requirement to – eliminate unlawful discrimination – which treating people differently because of their sexual orientation is. Or how it advanced equality of opportunity or fostered good relations. Her comments at best placed the responsibility of challenging homophobia on the shoulders of those who suffer it and at worst condoned homophobia.

Some might say I am taking this too literally, that she sought to make a general point and perhaps chose a poor subject to illustrate it. However, I don’t let her off that lightly. She is powerful and privileged woman who has a responsibility to recognize the legal duties by which she is personally and professionally bound.

So to be clear, in my professional view, as well as my personal, human one, identifying homophobia as something that is ok to express as part of an everyday educational experience, even if it makes others uncomfortable and then relying on others to challenge you to help you see the error of your ways is not acceptable under the law as it stands.