The coronavirus pandemic will probably have serious financial implications for universities going forward. Already university management teams are contingency planning to respond to the predicted reduced income from the lower student numbers.
Any action universities take to protect their financial position is likely to adversely impact on staff, not just on their wellbeing, but the level of redundancies, promotions and recruitment. In terms of the initial negative medical outcomes from Covid-19, we have already seen that the immediate effects are being felt by the most marginalised groups in our society, particularly BAME groups.
In the higher education sector questions are already being asked about the impact on BAME students, but could Covid-19 be equally devastating for BAME staff particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic?
Stereotypes and special protections
As a result of the frenzied response to the pandemic we have seen some senior NHS managers suggesting that BAME staff should be offered special protection or removed from front line medical services to “protect them from the virus”. Unfortunately, such headlines play into the narrative of BAME staff being somehow more challenging and costly to employ. Such stereotypes will not just apply to professions allied to medicine but could easily spread to areas such as higher education.
There is no doubt that the same structural racism which has generated the inequalities which resulted in the disproportionate number of people described as BAME being infected and dying from Covid-19 will also be at play in higher education.
Even before the pandemic, there was significant underrepresentation in the higher education sector amongst groups described as BAME, but particularly those academics racialised as black. According to 2019 data from Advance HE, the sector is already missing over 300 black professors and over 1500 black academics.
That is because whereas about 10 per cent of all academics are professors, only 4.5 per cent of black academics are professors. When combined with the general underrepresentation of black academics in the sector overall, this extrapolates to well over 300 black professors missing in the sector. The same data also shows that BAME staff are in the most junior positions and are most likely to be on fixed-term contracts which also place them in the most vulnerable positions when institutions have to cut back.
A question of place
The Advance HE data will also show there are fewer academics racialised as black in research-intensive institutions which are less reliant on student numbers for income. These institutions are already well resourced with income from research and other sources such as donations from alumni.
By contrast, the inner-city institutions which employ most academic and professors racialised as black are those which are most likely to be affected by the predicted fall in student numbers. Paradoxically, almost all the extra government funding being awarded to universities to help respond to and understand the impact of the pandemic is also being awarded to the research-intensive institutions.
Despite the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 being in the inner cities many with local universities with a much higher proportion of BAME staff, many with expertise in the unfashionable areas linked to the consequences of structural racism now being investigated.
The issues around institutional income will be compounded by employment practices in the sector which have been known for some time to be discriminatory even before the pandemic.
In our highly racialised world, an easy conclusion to make is that the missing 300 was brought about by the lack of suitable black professorial candidates with experience or potential to make the grade. This deficit assumption forms the basis for the widespread and constant push to send aspiring racialised black professionals in all areas on development courses or mentorship schemes.
In reality, the missing 300 is a clear example of structural racism, where applicants racialised as black are much less likely to be shortlisted, and even if shortlisted and interviewed, are less likely to be appointed, regardless of their qualifications and experience.
These outcomes were documented at a time when there were fewer financial constraints. With the expected greater financial constraints in the post-pandemic world finally arrives, all BAME candidates will face even greater challenges to be appointed, remain in posts and to be promoted unless we see effective enforcement of the law and good professional practice.
Although institutions have a range of legal instruments to ensure equality in terms of employment and to protect staff with protected characteristics such as the 2010 Equality Act, and mechanisms such as the public sector equality duty and equality impact assessments. The Advance HE and similar data from UCU confirms that in practice these instruments are not effective in the normal course of events, never mind in the financial fallout of a pandemic.
If the sector is not careful, structural racism could mean that as the sector responds to the stresses of the pandemic, BAME staff will be further disproportionately affected, not just in terms of their wellbeing but in terms of their existence in the sector.
Now is the time to remind those making decisions about redundancies, promotions and recruitment that BAME academics are going to be key in the post-pandemic world in terms of the inclusive environment on campus and the decolonised university.
With the sector still struggling to respond to powerful student campaigns like Rhodes must fall, why is my curriculum white? and why isn’t my professor black? any intervention designed to support the 23 per cent of students who identify as BAME would be pointless unless matched by similar support for their academic equivalents. Ultimately a reduction of the number of BAME academics particularly racialised as black will be sending the wrong message to all students and staff and would be counterproductive.