After a decade of discussion progress on anti-racism in higher education is still too slow

The bungled report of the commission on race and ethnic disparities should spur HE towards faster progress on equality, argues David Mba.

David Mba is pro vice chancellor research and enterprise at De Montfort University.

It is fair to say the recent report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has left many in the ethnic community distrustful of the government’s intentions.

Many had hoped the government would address the racial inequality fostered, however subtly, by Britain’s institutions. On the contrary, the report dispels the very notion of institutional racism. Apparently individual trees, even when planted closely together, do not constitute a wood.

The report does include the highlighting of already-known disparities in higher education.

And though it offers no meaningful recommendation on how these can be addressed, this is perhaps less of a surprise. After all, the HE sector itself has not found a solution to radically address this disparity after more than a decade of discussion.

In the meantime, all indicators of student continuation, retention and graduate employment for black and ethnic minority students point squarely, I would argue, to institutional racism.

Whole institution problem; whole institution response

Universities are meant to be exemplars of tolerance, inclusion and freedom of expression; a microcosm of an idealised, inclusive society. Yet numerous reports of actual lived experiences of minority ethnic, particularly black, staff and students show otherwise – and have done for years.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on harassment highlighted widespread racial harassment suffered by both staff and students, including name-calling and insults. That report’s summary concluded: “Racial harassment is a common experience for a wide range of students and staff at universities across England, Scotland and Wales.”

The harassment had caused students to leave university and staff to quit their jobs – the very staff needed to help address the disproportionately low levels of ethnic staff in the sector. The EHRC report also noted most students and staff do not report racial harassment; in part reflecting a lack of confidence in the ability of institutions to confront this discrimination.

A recent Universities UK report – Tackling racial harassment in higher education – made several recommendations to address racial harassment.

Three in particular stand out:

  1. That senior leaders demonstrate strong leadership and ownership of activity to address racial harassment.
  2. That additional training covering unconscious bias, racial literacy, structural racism, microaggressions and white privilege, should be provided.
  3. That proactive measures, such as mentoring, should be used to support staff from minority ethnic backgrounds to reach more senior positions.

All laudable recommendations. But if you really want to know how far the higher education sector has come, compare these recommendations with a report by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) over a decade ago.

The recommendations made in the ECU report included:

  1. Equality and diversity leaders in institutions should report at pro vice-chancellor level.
  2. That additional training on equality and diversity should be made available to departmental managers.
  3. That proactive measures, such as mentoring, should be used to develop opportunities for staff from BME backgrounds.

Almost identical recommendations, a decade apart. Meanwhile, the problems of low representation of ethnic minority staff at senior level and the disparities in outcomes for students of ethnic minority drift on.

Perhaps we need to be reminded again that equality is not a spare room we’ve never quite got round to redecorating. It’s fundamental; it’s the foundations of a strong house.

Eyes on the prize

Why should things change now? Well, perhaps the bungled disparities report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities should serve as an impetus to the HE sector.

The sector took the lead in spurring national and global recovery from the Covid pandemic through scientific research.

While the government puzzles over how to tackle streams of racism with no obvious source, the HE sector can lead again, by heading a national effort to create anti-racist and inclusive communities truly attuned to the country they serve. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the sector’s growing ethnic student population will expect nothing less.

There are two obvious avenues for driving change: the Race Equality Charter and the institutional Access Participation Plans.

Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter (REC) is a banner of inclusivity and anti-racism. The charter provides a framework for institutions to self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers that inhibit the progress and success of ethnic minority staff and students.

Sadly, there are only 17 institutions that have been awarded the charter since its launch in 2016. Why has the momentum been so slow and how can the REC be promoted more effectively?

We can learn, I believe, from the Athena Swan Charter, established to drive culture change towards gender equality. Crucially, the charter had the support of research funding organisations. It meant HE institutions had to take immediate steps to bring about gender balance and ensure equitable recognition of female academics, in order to access research funding. Money moved mountains it seems.

A recent review of the charter showed the significant positive impact it has had to drive culture change, though noting it is now deemed a bureaucratic burden. Whilst research funding organisations are now withdrawing the requirement for the charter to qualify for funding, without question, the charter has driven change necessary towards ensuring better gender parity.

There is a strong argument to link research funding to the REC, creating the immediate impetus to drive the cultural change necessary for more inclusive policies in HE, similar to the support given at the initiation of the Athena Swan. Anything otherwise would surely only reinforce the de facto practices that disenfranchise a particular group, or reinforce the status quo of institutional racism.

We could couple this with the monitoring of universities’ access and participation plans (APP), which were established to improve equality of opportunity for underrepresented groups in HE.

Monitoring provides the Office for Students (OfS) with the framework to make regulatory interventions, should institutions fail to demonstrate progress in meeting self-set targets on – for example – attainment and progression of minority ethnic students.

The EHRC has already recommended that government explores providing the OfS with the regulatory framework to assess whether higher education providers “have taken sufficient steps to tackle harassment” and “to impose conditions of funding or registration where this is not the case.” Perhaps a future iteration of the APPs should include specific measures on racial harassment.

At the very least, the HE sector must ensure that the institutionally self-satisfied report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities does not provide an excuse to further impede our own drive towards institutions that are inclusive and anti-racist.

Whatever the government in power says on race and ethnic disparities, let us still have a dream – and work towards its fulfilment.

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