How to make progress on anti-Black racism on campus

How did higher education respond to Black Lives Matter, and what should happen next? Osaro Otobo has highlights from a new report.

“Covid is a pandemic. Well, racism is the biggest pandemic ever. They need to treat this issue in the same way they treated the pandemic” – an SU Officer

We already know that racism in higher education is a real issue – there has been so much research, so many reports and so many activists speaking up about it over the years. Yet in June, it appeared that for the first time many universities were prepared to talk about their support of Black lives publicly.

Our research (a combination of interviews, desk research and a public survey) set out to explore how UK universities have responded to BLM, and the ongoing work they are doing to support Black lives.

One of our key findings was that only 26% of survey respondents felt that their university’s response to Black Lives Matter was appropriate or sufficient.

We spoke to university senior leaders and students’ union leaders. We also spoke to people doing valuable work to support Black lives outside traditional structures. We have highlighted common challenges, and also the solutions needed for the sector to keep Black lives on top of the agenda. These solutions include decolonisation, reducing the use of “BAME”, and recognising that anti-racism work needs to underpin institutional Covid responses.

Our report has 31 recommendations, here we highlight some of the key ones.

Everyone’s responsibility

It needs to be built into all the strategies and built into all the people – with long and short-term targets on all levels. Staff and students also need to be clear on what the institutional approach to anti-racism is and how they can play their part.

47.4% of survey respondents said they were aware of methods to better support Black students and staff through their own role. In our report, we recommend that universities should include anti-Black racism expectations for students and staff in a code of conduct that is communicated at the recruitment and enrolment stage. They also need the right support in the form of anti-racism training and education so that they feel more comfortable tackling this issue.

A dedicated senior role

Senior leadership roles already have huge portfolios of work. Adding the massive area of anti-racism to an established senior role does not fill many people with confidence because it is not possible for appropriate focus to be paid to that area.

We propose that there is a dedicated member of staff that can report to the VC directly and recommend that institutions create a new senior leadership role to focus on anti-racism. However, for this to be done right, institutions need to also use external decolonisation education experts to work on this. Decolonisation involves giving students and staff the tools to empower them to challenge existing structures. So it is not possible for university leadership to solely undertake decolonisation work themselves.

Bringing in the board

The governing body sets the strategic vision of the university so why is it not more involved in anti-racism work? It should be aware of the issues around racial inequality at the institution, and it should actively hold itself and senior leadership to account on this topic. We recommend that anti-racism is a standing agenda item at meetings of council/board of governors.

Formal accountability

When universities talk about their work on racial inequality, most of the time they reference the Race Equality Charter (REC). The charter has been around for the past 5 years, yet many Black students and staff would say that racism has not improved in HE.

The Race Equality Charter (REC) may show a commitment, but institutions must be careful that it is not used as a tick-box exercise. Unless institutions embrace implementing meaningful change throughout, then a charter mark does not equate to much. Anti-racism work needs to go beyond the REC, and we recommend that best practice should be considered to be those institutions that do more than just comply.

Some believe that when the Athena Swan Award got linked to university research funding it raised its profile. Universities care a lot about funding and research. For the REC or anti-racism work to be seen as more critical to an institution, it may need to explicitly relate to income and financial performance.

That’s why our report recommends that the Race Equality Charter (or progress of anti-racism work) is tied into funding for UK universities. There is an argument that this may lead to people doing it for the “wrong reasons”, but Black people can’t afford to wait until their institution decides to work on anti-racism for the ”right reasons”.

Working together

So many organisations and institutions are doing work towards anti-racism. There needs to be a home for anti-racism work in higher education so that no one is duplicating each other’s efforts. This will allow for resources and time to be better focused.

For example, two organisations may run a similar survey to get feedback from the same pool of Black students at the same time. When we work together, we can move closer to reaching the goal of having a truly anti-racist sector.

Our report suggests that the higher education sector needs a collective way to work on anti-racism. There should be a collective body where membership bodies, consultancies, and other organisations within the sector can come together and collaborate on anti-racism projects.

The top of the agenda

This underpins everything. If one part of the staff or student cohort is not getting appropriate support, aside from it being morally wrong, we are not only short-changing them, but we are depriving the university of unlocked talent and potential.

We need ownership, stronger formal accountability and more cohesive collaboration.

If higher education providers do not consistently step up for Black lives and there is no substantial progress, there may come a time where Black people coordinate to boycott particular universities or even boycott traditional universities altogether in favour of new educational offers.

What happened this year should be taken as a warning to university senior leadership – take this chance to do better for Black lives now, before it is too late.

You can watch a webinar discussing the findings of the report here.

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