If we stop looking at race inequality, will it just go away?

Nick Cartwright interrogates ethnicity data on student disciplinary action in higher education, and draws a worrying blank

Nick Cartwright is a senior lecturer in Law at the University of Northampton and a Senior Advisor for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education.

I play hide-and-seek with my children – the youngest will cover up his eyes until he’s ready to be found.

He believes that if he can’t see what he doesn’t want to see then it ceases to be a problem for him. The eldest is bored of childish games so when we ask him to join in, he pretends he hasn’t heard us. He believes that if he hasn’t acknowledged hearing the words then they cease to be a problem for him.

It seems like some universities are playing a similar game, but the stakes are immeasurably higher. In refusing to take their hands away from their eyes they are refusing to see the systemic inequalities that lead to less good outcomes for marginalised and disadvantaged students. But just because they are refusing to look at the problem does not mean it does not exist.

Anyone who has ever stood up against systemic inequalities will have been told that the problem is with them – that somehow by talking about issues we summon them into existence like the Candyman. Like the Sewell Report they will tell us that racism is not the problem, but that people talking about racism is.

Sewell even makes the charge that those who, like me, bang on about racial injustice risk alienating “the decent centre ground”. If we don’t join in with the pretences that inequality does not exist, then we risk making the thing that doesn’t exist worse somehow as if in, for example, requiring employers to report the gender pay gap we actually created pay inequality.

But what about the outcomes

What we do know is that everywhere we have looked we have seen inequalities of outcome. Even Sewell acknowledges this before he contorts himself trying to explain it away. Every time we collect data and analyse it, we will see that students of colour, especially black students, have less good outcomes.

We know that young black men in particular are more likely to stopped and searched by police, are less likely to go to university, are less likely to receive the same academic awards as their peers and ultimately, when everything else is corrected for, are likely to earn less after graduation.

Yet higher education institutions, having been too slow to interrogate the data around the so-called BAME award gap, are now not bothering to interrogate the rest of the data they have around the experiences of black students. Is this because they believe issues of systemic racism exist only in the places we’ve looked, and everywhere we haven’t looked it won’t exist?

Or is it because those in positions of power have no real interest in remedying institutional racism unless the media spotlight is shone on it by the likes of Black Lives Matter?

Understanding the lives that matter

I say all of this because I recently tried to better understand the experiences of black students at UK universities. I had access to published data around admission, retention, progression, academic outcomes, and graduate destinations. I did not however have adequate insight into the everyday experiences of black students outside of their direct educational experiences.

I know that the Halpin Partnership have done important work with UniteStudents investigating the experiences of black students living in student accommodation and I wanted to know how these students were policed in the places where they lived.

I started by making FOI (Freedom of Information) requests of 132 UK HEIs. I asked for data on the numbers of students who had faced disciplinary action for non-academic offences, both generally and specifically in their accommodation. I further asked for this information to be broken down by ethnicity, I was not specific about how I wanted the data broken down as I was happy to receive it in whatever form the institution held it.

I was not naïve enough to think that higher education institutions would be rushing to share this data, but I thought most would comply with their legal obligation as public bodies to provide it. What I was naïve about was the extent to which higher education institutions do not collect, keep, or analyse this data. How can any higher education institution be sure that their black students are not being disproportionately impacted by certain procedures, and therefore effectively do equality impact assessments of these procedures, if they don’t know the data within their own institution?

Of the 132 higher education institutions that received FOI requests 39 percent had not responded at all within the statutory timeframe, itself an offence. 4 HEIs (3 percent) had responded requesting more time, reasonable given the impact of the pandemic. Of those that did respond only 23 HEIs were able to provide any data on ethnicity, that’s just 17 percent of the total or 28 percent of those that responded.

Further, a significant number of these higher education institutions were unable to provide meaningful ethnicity data, some even providing a binary breakdown along a White/BAME divide.

83 percent of the higher education institutions asked therefore were unable or unwilling to provide any ethnicity data relating to student experiences of disciplinary action, and of the 17 percent that were much of this data was of limited utility.

Known unknowns

I stop there because there’s very little else I can say. I cannot prove that black students are more likely to be subjected to disciplinary action, or how that differs between action for activities in accommodation and elsewhere. On the lack of data I could conclude either – that there are probably racial disparities because they are everywhere else we’ve looked or – that there are probably not racial disparities because I haven’t been able to check, maybe even surmising that as there are so many other racial disparities everywhere else they can’t be here too, after all we must run out racial disparities eventually.

What I can conclude is that higher education institutions almost universally have again shown themselves to be institutionally racist through their failure to know the impact of their actions on the students they are responsible for. The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) (now part of AdvanceHE) advised when the Equality Act (2010) entered into force that the best way to evidence compliance with the legal obligations created for HEIs was through the use of Equality Impact Needs Assessments (EINAs).

Like any tool EINAs can be used inappropriately but used well should highlight inequalities of outcome. EINAs require that data is collected and analysed so as to evaluate the impact of higher education institutions activities across all the protected characteristics. Part of the problem is that with a reduced role for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who did some good work enforcing previous legislation, there is no body acting as watchdog for the 2010 Act.

This means HEIs are not being asked to evidence compliance and therefore the need for EINAs is perceived as less important. If higher education institutions however are serious about reducing inequalities, they need to start carrying out EINAs of everything they do and where an inequality is identified develop actions aimed at reducing it.

These actions then need be monitored through a cycle of reflection, underpinned by further EINAs. Without the threat of enforcement action though there may be little reason for optimism that such simple and necessary developments will happen.

As a sector, we must get better at understanding where our students experience inequality if we are ever to reduce it. If efforts to decolonise the curriculum are really more than grand virtue signalling then they will not succeed if the whole student experience is not improved, yet we don’t even have a baseline from which to begin.

7 responses to “If we stop looking at race inequality, will it just go away?

  1. Hi,

    I found this article to be very interesting and reinforces my concerns as to repeated questions on this subject which I have been asking for past twenty years at my institution.

    1. Thank you. It’s frustrating isn’t it, perhaps more so because the law should require that these questions can be answered.

  2. It’s an interesting question. However, I know that at at least one instituion I worked at the numbers of disciplinary cases overall were so small anyway that the break down by ethnicity would not meet the reporting threshold. I’m not sure that even at my current institution the numbers of BAME students in the numbers would be such that they would be reportable without being anonymised in some way before being revealed.

    At my previous institution, I dealt with this kind of query a lot and there were many, many queries when we responded with ‘does not meet threshold for anonymity’. I have foudn that not every institution deals with that in a consistent way though. How much of what you received might have been coloured or confused by attempts to anonymise the data and how transparent was that?

    1. Hi, I did get some responses that gave limited data for reasons of anonymity. I included these in the small group of partial responses. The majority who did respond said they didn’t hold the data in that way and relied on the ‘too much time needed’ excuse.

  3. Hi Nick, thank you for shining a light on this extremely important issue – I find it astonishing that there is so much research (ie data) being produced on structural inequalities that lays bare the points that you make within your article eg injustice, rascism, ineffective leavers to tackle the root cause, but rarely is at a distance to what is going on within the sector. The lens is rarely turned back on ourselves (yes i work at a univeristy) and when it is it shows either multiple failures, from lack of data, to where its exists no accompanying action plan… I hope by more articles like this that the universities, funders, gov might see this as a sector wide issue and by working together to take action will not only produce the baseline, but will enable us to get serious about drawing on it to ensure both staff and students do not expereince inequity within the system.

  4. Nick states:
    ‘If we don’t join in with the pretences that inequality does not exist, then we risk making the thing that doesn’t exist worse somehow as if in, for example, requiring employers to report the gender pay gap we actually created pay inequality.’
    The Sewell commission consisted of black academics, educationalists who put forward a view of racial disparities in the UK. Nick, a white academic, in the name of anti-racism, chooses to caricature and misrepresent those black voices. At no stage does the commission say inequality does not exist. They say the opposite, that it does.
    Here are some quotes from the report. They are not comprehensive, but suggest that anyone reading Nick’s article could get a more nuanced, and truthful, view from reading the report itself .
    ‘He (the PM) felt that the UK needed to consider important questions about the state of race relations today, and that there needed to be a thorough examination of why so many disparities persist.’
    ‘The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism. That said, we take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK.’
    ‘Yes, there are still some ‘snowy white peaks’ at the very top of the private and public sectors, and not all of that can be accounted for by the fact that members of the ethnic minorities have not, by definition, been embedded in the country’s human networks and institutions for as long as the White majority.’
    ‘We do not believe that the UK is yet a post-racial society which has completed the long journey to equality of opportunity. And we know, too many of us from personal experience, that prejudice and discrimination can still cast a shadow over lives. Outright racism still exists in the UK, whether it surfaces as graffiti on someone’s business, violence in the street, or prejudice in the labour market. It can cause a unique and indelible pain for the individual affected and has no place in any civilised society.’

    Making the narrative about himself (an instance of ‘white privilege’?), Nick writes that: ‘Sewell even makes the charge that those who, like me, bang on about racial injustice risk alienating “the decent centre ground”’.
    Here’s what the report states:
    ‘We understand the idealism of those well-intentioned young people who have held on to, and amplified, this inter-generational mistrust. However, we also have to ask whether a narrative that claims nothing has changed for the better, and that the dominant feature of our society is institutional racism and White privilege, will achieve anything beyond alienating the decent centre ground – a centre ground which is occupied by people of all races and ethnicities.’
    Nick’s view is a gross caricature designed to occupy the moral high ground.
    So Nick, make your argument, but respect and take seriously others’ views. Perhaps especially the views of people you claim to be advocating for.

    1. Apols, the start of this contribution should read: ‘Nick sets out the gist of the Sewell Report as follows:’

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