In a recent Wonkhe article responding to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, David Mba highlighted the painfully slow pace of change in addressing institutional racism in higher education.
It was a timely reminder, if one were needed, that compiling reports, making recommendations, calling for system change, have all been done before and not much has progressed.
David highlighted “two obvious avenues for driving change: the Race Equality Charter and the institutional Access and Participation Plans.” We suggest a third – student power. Our answer to this is the Black Leadership Programme at Nottingham Trent University.
In 2019, Afua Acheampong, as Vice-President Education of the Nottingham Trent Students Union, was stirred into action. Inspired by the courage and persistence of students speaking up about inequalities; shocked by the statistics and galvanised by her own experience, Afua was determined to make something happen.
Looking across the sector, she found a real lack of knowledge and understanding amongst her fellow students, not only about issues such as the “BAME attainment gap” but even the terms “BME” or “BAME” – never mind how questionable the label is. There was little appreciation about how minority ethnic staff and students are not simply one homogenous group with an identical experience of life in higher education.
She read about the lack of diversity in the HE workforce, in senior positions and decision-making university committees, and about a lack of diversity in the authors and producers of textbooks and resources.
She found accounts of daily (and usually unreported) encounters with racism and microaggressions. She heard reports of many institutions with inconsistent and incomplete handling of complaints and an over-reliance on signposting people to policies on university websites. And how some institutions, when challenged on this, displayed aspects of “white fragility” – the disbelief and defensiveness when majority ideas about race and racism are challenged.
Black Leadership Programme
Afua reported her findings to the university and, spurred on by the reception she received, brought together the students union and the university executive team to collaborate on the NTU Black Leadership Programme.
Now in its second year, the programme is designed to empower black undergraduate students with the confidence, the sense of belonging, entitlement, and mattering, to become resilient leaders and role models.
The NTU Black Leadership Programme is a mix of community-building activities, mentoring, inspirational speakers and work with both employers and global institutions. Centrepiece workshops are delivered by youth charity Grit: Breakthrough Programmes. Facilitated by black trainers, these intense and uncompromising workshops explore notions of leadership from a black perspective; how students can use their personal resources to develop their skills and qualities, to generate supportive networks and relationships that build belonging and community.
Students look at how, by going to university, they already have a leadership role; about who it is they want to be for others; about what it means to be a visible black leader who can inspire the next generation. As one participant said, “Now I’m much more confident in my identity.”
It is powerful stuff. Equipping a generation of young black students with leadership and advocacy skills creates, in turn, a cohort more willing and able to push for the structural change required. As one Grit trainer says, “These students become a formidable and passionate collective who speak openly, aspirationally and inspirationally about who they are now and who they are becoming as black leaders. They developed a dignified determination to thrive and a commitment to be the change for others to follow. They are ready to step up!”
The Black Leadership Programme forms part of NTU’s Race Equality Charter Action Plan and is part of the university’s Access and Participation Plan – because it is the underlying culture of an institution that influences a students’ sense of belonging and attainment.
So, if you work in HE on the response to BLM, write the reports, make the recommendations, amend the policies – address the structural issues. But, at the same time, don’t forget it is students themselves who can make the biggest difference.