It’s time to bring the student voice into debates about race

Education is white.

When we think about education as a social construct, it inherently reinforces the ‘white’ view on the world given that policy makers and those who implement education policy are also predominantly white. There has been an increased (regulatory) focus and research in the higher education sector on BME (Black and minority ethnic) attainment and the lack of diversity, which has forced the sector to start having some uncomfortable conversations about race.

Are we ready to change?

Advance HE identified that in 2017/18 66.3 per cent of professors were white men and 23.6 per cent were white women. They also noted that only 1.3 per cent of UK national academic senior managers were BME women and 3.0 per cent were BME men. The Advance HE Equality Student report notes that in 2017/18 only 23.9 per cent of students identified as BME.

Given these figures, it is not surprising that most institutions develop their student experience to suit the needs of the majority of their student body, which for most institutions is white, without fully acknowledging that BME students will have a different view and experience. In this context, student representation of BME students becomes even more important than it already is in the changing landscape of HE.

At a time where society as a whole is increasingly talking about equality and diversity, are HE institutions ready to have uncomfortable conversations in order to create tangible changes to how education is delivered?

Irrespective of the make-up of their student population, this is an area that all institutions should reflect and act on. At Middlesex, the students’ union and the university jointly bid to take part in the national research project facilitated by The Student Engagement Partnership (TSEP) into creating Inclusive Student Engagement practices. The project used the term ‘students of colour’ which provided a starting point for our conversation with our university community about the wider topic of race.

Student voice leadership

At Middlesex, 70.1 per cent of our students identify as BME. Given this high figure, we wanted to establish how representative our student representatives (Student Voice Leaders) are of the Middlesex student body and what barriers to engagement might exist for students of colour. Understanding the diversity of student representation is something that institutions and students’ unions should consider when implementing and enhancing student voice processes. During the initial conversations at Middlesex, we set about exploring how comfortable our staff and students are using the term ‘students of colour’. We found that there was a difference in the language both staff and students felt confident using and what would be included in the definition.

Students told us that they understood the term as: Black, minority ethnic, mixed race, non-Caucasian, non-white. Students also linked the term to race, religion, culture and ethnicity. Staff often described the term as ‘outdated’, ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘derogatory’ in the free-text comments. The feedback highlighted the need for a wider conversation about the language used when exploring issues related to race and ethnicity to ensure that all staff and students are equally comfortable when discussing these topics.

Before participating in the project, we had not collected any demographic data about our student representatives at programme level. Following the example of another project recently run by Sparqs (student partnerships in quality Scotland), we decided to collect information (on a voluntary basis) regarding not only their ethnicity but also their religion, gender, age, employment, disability, commuter status and caring responsibilities. This simple step went a long way to understanding which students were running for these positions and what barriers they might face when engaging in representative activities. We then compared this data to the diversity of the overall student population to identify any gaps.

The results showed that the demographics of the Student Voice Leaders (SVLs) were broadly similar to the overall student population with slightly more white SVLs (+7 per cent) and fewer Black, African, Caribbean or black British SVLs (-6.5 per cent) compared to the student population.

The student voice

We wanted to better understand the student experience and view on this and appointed a student researcher to undertake focus groups with students who identified as students of colour and were not elected representatives, as well as with Student Voice Leaders identifying as students of colour to understand the difference in their experience.

From the focus groups we identified the following themes: issues relating to intersectionality, perceptions of the role, diversity of staff supporting the process and the lived experience of students.

I think because with my course, obviously, a lot of it is males… most of my class, so I’m the only girl in my class, and people just kind of look at me, like, ‘Oh yeah she’s dumb she can’t do this she can’t do that’. But, when they see that I can actually do something, suddenly they want to change how they act? It’s kind of.. it’s just really annoying? And with religion as well, I feel like, some people kind of see a headscarf and they think, ‘Oh, let’s just back away from her.’ And they… very… they just, like, stereotype you a lot, which is really annoying.

Students told us that gender and religion significantly impacted their experience as Student Voice Leaders, particularly when religious identity was visible to other students. Some SVLs felt that this resulted in being perceived as less approachable or able to fulfil the role.

Yeah… and, it’s really annoying because people are seeing them and they’re like, ‘Oh she wears the hijab, she might not talk to us. She might be very stubborn, she might be this, she might be that’ and it’s just, its tiring when you hear it, like, a lot of times.

SVLs also highlighted difficulties in collecting feedback from large cohorts or ethnically diverse cohorts where students felt they could not identify with the SVL and approach them for feedback.

We’ve got mixed with blacks whites browns and everything. So, doesn’t really matter so much. Because, the other SVL? She’s white, I’m brown. […] We’ve got blacks, we’ve got browns, we’ve got everything. For, at least, for my case it doesn’t really matter that much. At times, it gets… at times, they go more to the whites than come to me. Even if it’s browns, even browns don’t trust browns.

Students across all focus groups identified that staff may benefit from equality and diversity training to ensure the different demographics within a student cohort would be taken into account. They also highlighted the lack of diversity in the key staff roles in the SU that support SVLs.

Because, let’s be real, especially in the 21st century, a lot of racism isn’t blatant, it’s not, what you say, in your face. It’s very very inherent in the way that they handle situations, the way they will speak to you, in how they do, the way they move, do you know what I mean? Like, you wouldn’t understand or know it or see it, if you haven’t experienced it, do you see where I’m coming from?

What next?

The themes and challenges emerging from the focus group discussions are not unique to Middlesex, they are something that all institutions need to individually grapple with in their own context and work collaboratively across the sector to find solutions. More work needs to be done if we are going to truly tackle this issue and benefit not only the university but also our graduates, the businesses they work for, the communities they live in and ultimately society. As for when we can successfully do this, we will see an improvement in the perception of traits related to diversity and representations made throughout business leaders, community leaders, politicians that will improve the value placed on a diverse society. When we create this ‘perfect storm’ which allows for a diverse range of people making it into leadership positions, they will act as role models for others coming through the ranks, displaying a diverse range of values and changing the narrative of policy-making.

By beginning this conversation, we were able to make a number of recommendations that will improve the accessibility of our student representative roles. These include:

  • diversity training for reps and staff involved in the student voice process;
  • recruitment publicity show-casing the diversity of our students;
  • including questions on diversity in student surveys;
  • monitoring the diversity of students’ union staff.

The biggest recommendation to universities, and arguably the most difficult to implement, is the need to create spaces and opportunities supported by the institutional leadership that contribute to building the confidence of the university community to have conversations around issues relating to race.

Only when our student representatives mirror the diversity of our student population, they can truly reflect and voice the experience of the student body. We then ensure that these diverse voices are involved in shaping University strategies and policies, changing the narrative and shifting the focus to create a student experience that works for all students and not only your typical white undergraduate student.

As a result of the project, we have made practical interventions to support and empower a diverse group of students to take up leadership roles and be effective in championing student feedback and driving this culture change.

As the confidence of institutions grows, so will the openness of our students to provide meaningful feedback about their lived experiences.

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