Race Equality in Higher Education

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A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference on race equality in higher education, organised by the University of Hertfordshire. It was an opportunity for university lecturers, students, HR officers, trade unionists, and equality and diversity practitioners to get together to discuss the issues facing higher education with regards to race equality and to put forward potential solutions to address the current problems. Its speakers included Professor Gus John, Aaron Kiely from the NUS, Deborah Gabriel from Black British Academics and Claire Herbert from the Equality Challenge Unit.

Throughout all speeches and workshops, there seemed to be a common consensus that the current state of play with regards to race equality in higher education is simply not good enough, and I would definitely agree, both from my personal experiences working on equality issues in higher education and the statistics presented in the conference. The statistics concerning student experience in higher education tell a particularly frightening story; in the 2012 ‘No Place for Hate’ Report, the National Union of Students found that 18% of the students questioned had experienced a racist hate incident at university and 54% of these targets had considered leaving their course as a result of the attack. In addition, 42% of students stated that the curriculum on their course did not reflect issues of equality, diversity and discrimination, and 34% felt that they were unable to bring their perspective on issues to lectures and tutor meetings. These experiences of inequality and discrimination are not just limited to the university environment, but can also be experienced when trying to gain access to higher education. Indeed, London Metropolitan University has more Black Caribbean students than all Russell Group universities put together, signalling that there are structural inequalities at play in many universities which deprive certain students of the opportunity to take part in higher education, and meaning that these institutions continue to be hugely unrepresentative of UK society.

Representation of black staff in higher education paints a similar picture. There are currently 15,990 white academics in the UK, compared to just 2,640 black academics. In addition to this, of the 85 black professors working in higher education, only 15 of these are women, meaning that structural inequalities are not just felt along racial lines in universities, and not just along gender lines, but are perhaps felt most harshly when markers of identity intersect.

With these statistics in mind, you would be forgiven for thinking that there is a mountain to climb in achieving race equality in higher education. But why is this so? Delegates at the conference pointed to a lack of understanding of the issues by staff at universities, an overabundance of policies which fail to predicate action, an outright denial of experiences of racism as ‘having a chip on your shoulder’ and, as Deborah Gabriel so concisely put it, ‘the institutional cultures of universities…premised on white, middle class, Eurocentric values’.

So what can be done? One delegate seemed to echo the sentiments of many by pointing out that race inequalities in education have been at the centre of many discussions for the last 20 years, with little visible progress to report.

Professor Gus John took a holistic approach to undoing the current inequalities by stressing the importance of making equality and diversity organic to the culture of the university and the vital role of senior managers and government in realising this. He mentioned that ‘values need to be embedded into an organisation’ and ‘active steps must be taken to build and sustain a culture of equality and zero tolerance,’ both of which I wholeheartedly agree with. I was, however, left wondering how exactly this can be achieved in practice?

Deborah Gabriel highlighted the importance of an approach which considers the intersectionality of equality strands, whilst calling for an acknowledgement of ‘institutional whiteness’ in universities, and the power and privilege this whiteness brings. Again, I wholeheartedly agree. But, again, I feel that these theoretical solutions may cause problems for a lecturer who is desperately trying to ensure their students are protected from discrimination or feel poorly represented in their course content. I feel that there needs to be much more focus on just how exactly a lecturer or a university goes about adopting an intersectional approach and acknowledging institutional whiteness in their everyday practice.

Aaron Kiely certainly gave more practical recommendations to reversing the current trend of under-recruitment of people from black, Asian, and other minority ethnic groups in universities and their over representation in statistics concerning hate crime incidents on campuses. These recommendations included full consultation with all ethnic groups in any decision-making process, information, guidance and support available to staff and supports, review of equality policies and the current student recruitment process, clearly articulated equality objectives, and a renewed focus on challenging discrimination in the institution. There was also lengthy discussion on the use of charter marks and the practicalities of implementing them within a university.

All of these recommendations certainly have their place in advancing race equality in higher education. Indeed, I believe that it is hugely important for an organisation to have a clear foundation on which to build their strategies, meaning that clear equality objectives should be set, practice should be informed by robust policies and policies should be audited and revised. In addition, whilst senior management is crucial in driving organisational change, I concur with Gus’s suggestion that a whole organisation approach to promoting race equality and tackling discrimination should be implemented.

However, for me, what’s really central to issues like this, and what is crucially missing from this discussion so far, is training and education for all staff about how to promote race equality and tackle racism at university. There cannot be the assumption that all staff members are fully on board with advancing race equality and that their forced cooperation in schemes of work to achieve this, will result in real changes to the current situation. Instead, education and training should be seen as a prerequisite to beginning any body of work, as people need an understanding of the true extent of the problems if they are to be irreversibly changed. Staff training should not be underestimated in its importance of highlighting the issues, exploring why change is so important, and, essentially, how these changes can be made.

Whilst the conference highlighted some very worrying trends existing in higher education, and posed some potential solutions, I believe that the discussion is far from over. There is a long way to go to achieving race equality in higher education, and if real change is to be made, this discussion must lead to more action.

Kate Hollinshead, Director: kate@equaliteach.co.uk

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