Agreeing on how to address racial inequality in higher education

Chris Millward argues that addressing systemic inequality and meeting personal needs don't need to be mutually exclusive when it comes to combating racial inequality in higher education

Professor of Practice in Education Policy, University of Birmingham

A recent essay collection from British Future and Bright Blue opens with these words:

While there has been progress on racial equality in Britain in recent decades, there is still an unacceptable gap in the life chances and everyday experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds. Yet political debate on race in the UK is stuck in polarised arguments

With forewords from across the political spectrum, the publication aims to cut through the polarised debate on race by demonstrating ambitious and actionable changes to policy and practice.

The problems

This idea no doubt resonates with many people studying and working in universities. It also reflects my own experience as England’s access regulator from 2018-21.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic students experience relatively high rates of access to higher education, but longstanding disparities beyond admission: virtually every combination of entry grade leads to them being less likely to achieve a First or 2:1.

Learning, teaching and assessment practices, the curriculum and relationships between students and with academic staff have been identified as causes. But so have differences in cultural, social and economic capital, which affect students’ sense of belonging and ability to thrive on campus.

So, to what extent should interventions help students adapt to the university environment? Or, should universities adapt to them?

The politics

This is where views become polarised. You need to search hard across public life to find people who say they do not want to reduce race inequality. There are, though, deep divisions about the right way to go about it. That was true in 2018 and it is even more the case now.

Progressives want to change cultures, processes and systems across the life-course and they worry about a “deficit model” focus on individuals. Conservatives want to promote individual opportunity and agency among young people, they are concerned about responsibility and standards, and may associate inclusive practices with “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Universities are a particular site for scrutiny because they channel entry to the highest paid and most prestigious jobs, and they are a platform for investigation and debate.

Take the issue of the ethnicity awarding gap. Universities UK and the National Union of Students have collectively argued for institutions to change and for senior leaders to take responsibility for this:

Universities and students need to create more opportunities to talk directly about race, racism and the attainment gap and to identify what students think is causing it…university leadership teams are not representative of the student body and some curriculums do not reflect minority groups’ experiences.

Universities in practice

There are distinctive circumstances at play within universities, with reputations rooted in history and standards, obligations to academic freedom, and the expectation that students will contribute to their own learning. But in most organisations this position would not be controversial. Businesses and public services need to understand the experiences and perspectives of the people they serve, and adapt their products, services and ways of working accordingly.

Surely, we should expect universities to update their curricula and approaches to learning, teaching and assessment in response to demographic changes?

The government used to lend its weight to this process of self-reflection and change, driven by a Race Disparity Unit run out of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. In 2020, though, it heralded

a new approach to equality…based on the core principles of freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity

This was announced by Liz Truss as the minister then responsible for equalities, so is likely to continue with her as Prime Minister.

The path ahead

I am now working at the University of Birmingham, experiencing the youth and ethnic diversity broadcast to the world through the city’s Commonwealth Games. Many of our minority ethnic students come from the local area through the Pathways to Birmingham outreach programme. They then become Birmingham Scholars, through which they receive enhanced personal academic tutoring and skills support, a dedicated induction programme and peer mentoring.

We consider carefully how to engage learners with the programme without lowering our expectations for them. Many subject areas are also bringing staff and students together to review the curriculum and the approach to learning, teaching and assessment, so they meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

Students and staff tell me they are inspired to be involved in this work. Universities know that it is crucial to engendering trust among young and passionate student bodies. This experience shows that we can support individuals without falling into the trap of deficit assumptions, and we can change our ways of working without lowering expectations and standards.

You can read a fuller version of Chris Millward’s article, along with other contributions, in the collection published by Bright Blue and British Future.

2 responses to “Agreeing on how to address racial inequality in higher education

  1. It is pleasing to know that the University of Birmingham’s Pathways programme has been supporting local minority ethnic students. My friend’s son, a Chinese boy, was on the University of Bristol’s Pathways programme and really valued the experience although he goes to the University of Cambridge after finishing sixth form. It is clear that universities have been doing some great work to support minority ethnic students, and I hope they will continue to develop their work in this area.

  2. Unfortunately “the soft bigotry of low expectations” often comes from experience, in my case I’m fortunate to work in a PhD research dept with very high entry requirements, so there are few UK students who are up to the mark, no matter their ethnic background. Our international students from around the world do however comment about the lack of drive to achieve they observe in many UK students, I suspect much of which comes from the way UK students are being taught in school/college in a way which effectively hands to them on a plate their results with little effort on their part. Their expectation in University, especially if a member of a ‘special’ ‘favoured’ minority group, of that continuing means many will not put the effort in, changing that goes far beyond the Universities reach and remit. Though through teaching teachers not to hand pupils things on a plate and not to favour one group over another Universities might help start the long term changes needed.

    Perhaps when the UK finally admits to becoming a 3rd world state with extreme violence on the streets: we may also see the same focus on achieving academically to escape poverty and violence many overseas students have?

Leave a Reply