Teaching excellence policy must not remain race-blind

The National Student Survey and the Teaching Excellence Framework should confront race head-on, says Caryn Franklin

Caryn Franklin is visiting professor of diverse selfhood at Kingston School of Art

As a member of Fashion Academics Creating Equality (FACE) – a Black led, voluntary organisation dedicated to race-aware and race-equality action, my race learning, vocabulary and anti-racist efficacy has been expanded in the last 18 months.

I benefit from both amplified understanding and focus on the barriers negotiated daily by our minoritised students and staff. I also have greater confidence to speak out.

We have come to the view that student surveys omitting to ask race-aware and race-equality questions, create false positives. To spell it out: it is only when race questions are included as specifics, that the psychological and educational deficit for minoritised learners is clearly exposed.

Given the current review of the National Student Survey, we have engaged with the Office for Students. In our meeting it was acknowledged that cognitive testing of questions on race were underway. There is a precedent, of sorts, for speedy addition of new questions as the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the addition of Covid questions into the 2021 survey, to be published at sector level confirms. So, declaration that there will be no inclusion of race-specific questions in time for 2023 is hard to take.

Race and regulation

The planned new iteration of the Teaching Excellence Framework, to the extent that it draws on national data, bakes in this problem. Scrutiny of student outcomes, even when split by demographic, cannot shed a light on the lived learning experience of Black and Brown students. So in facilitating institutional opportunity to comment on, or produce their own evidence, pertaining to disparity between different student groups to address race-inequality and racism, this system presides over indirect exposure of the problem and less effective regulation.

While the working premise of the current regulatory system rests upon a set of generic desirable outcomes shared by all students, the issue becomes the gap theorised as attributable to complex factors including structural racism, which could be said therefore to allow race-ignorance and racism to “hide in plain sight”.

Currently this system favours institutions, not students. By allowing for private report via access and participation plans, or through qualitative submission to the TEF, to account for shortcomings and offer solutions, we see under-delivery of targeted action for the dire problems our report highlights, on two counts.

First – in concealing this knowledge from our minoritised students whose progression and achievement continues to be obstructed by race ignorance and racism, it removes informed consumer choice underpinned by past consumer experience and rating.

Second – urgency for focus upon swift redress that comes with exposure of an under-resourced teaching body must lead to accelerated recruitment and progression of racially diverse and minoritised academics able to deliver culturally competent service. The latter, as our study concludes, is vital for all students entering a global marketplace and very relevant in the value for money conversation and extra financial burden students must now take on.

Unless the criteria for teaching excellence explicitly includes decolonisation and broader cultural perspectives as a measurable element, the TEF is redundant when tackling questions on diverse teaching environments.

Quantitative data is also questionable given the lack of minoritised students in institutions – particularly in arts education. This data also neglects the opinion and data capture of white students and their perspectives as a majority.

The purpose of adding questions to the NSS is to encourage direct institutional change through the whole student voice and should directly impact TEF. Any negative scores during the NSS are directly and clinically dealt with at programme, department, school, faculty and institution level through robust action plans.

Without a question about “quality of teaching diverse, varied subjects in positive and diverse teaching environments” included in the NSS – and from there, accounted for in TEF – there is no mechanism to measure qualitative data in relation to the EDI agenda. If race and diversity were higher on the agenda and clearly signposted by the NSS – change would be imminent.

See my FACE

At the end of 2021 we published the findings of See my FACE, a survey of 881 students from over 50 different institutions. Four questions, answered on a Likert scale (a rating of one to five) evaluated the presence of a diverse and inclusive teaching body; a diverse and inclusive curriculum; equitable academic progression unimpeded by bias; and a diverse, unbiased and inclusive cultural experience.

At FACE we use the term “minoritised” rather than “BAME”, to reflect a collective identity where power is denied through structural action. Just over a third of our respondents (34 per cent) were minoritised students. 65 per cent were white, and one per cent did not disclose their ethnicity.

Across all four areas, minoritised students were less likely than white students to agree that their experience was diverse, equal, unbiased, or inclusive. The area with greatest disparity between white and minoritised students was in the ability to study a diverse, unbiased, and inclusive curriculum where the gap between white students and minoritised students was greater than ten percentage points both on agreement and disagreement.

However, it was the open-ended lived experience question that reveals the heart-breaking unchecked direct and indirect racism amidst an environment of micro-aggressions that must give white educators and leaders a vital insight and the moral authorisation to push harder for immediate change. The critical recruitment of a more diverse teaching body able to deliver race knowledge; a decolonised curriculum; and pastoral care, are the central issues all institutions must prioritise. Race must be centred in any and all new initiatives.

We asked: “Please add any further insight into your lived experience as a student in relationship to “Race”. How, for example has “Race” impacted (if at all) your ability to study? 480 students responded to this question, with responses reported by four main themes.

Theme 1: How do we experience our race?

In a white environment, race difference is experienced as a highly visible aspect of identity in higher education, bringing with it a cargo of discomfort and injustice involving reduced mentoring, less resources and less tutor interest. Meanwhile white students, rarely noticing their race or the privileges it confers, did not equate whiteness with struggle.

Theme 2: My learning has been curated through a white lens

Fear that grades would be affected if white/non-minoritised academics didn’t “understand”, compromised approach, output and confidence for minoritised students. Industry racism is ignored, leaving minoritised students with the stressful responsibility to educate others including staff. White/non-minoritised learners are also dissatisfied with the lack of knowledge from academics and flag up race equality learning and knowledge as an obvious anti-racist tool for future proofing the industry going forward.

Theme 3: The absence of Black and Brown academics

Lack of any relationship with a Black or Brown/minoritised academic who understands, leaves minoritised students feeling unsupported, resulting in anxiety, isolation and distress. The lack of academic cultural competency is also seen when white/non-minoritised peers are not challenged by white/non-minoritised academics for behaviours including appropriation.

Theme 4: Aggression – the observed behaviours of white teachers and students

Rude and uncooperative teaching environments; outright racial slurs and offensive verbal utterances with white/non-minoritised academics repeatedly protected by the system, leaves minoritised students assessing damage to their mental health and wondering if they can complete their education.

Taken together these accounts offer a context for existing awarding gap data showing discrepancies of -19 per cent for students of Caribbean heritage and -23 per cent for students of African heritage. Thus, spend on education by students of colour does not deliver a comparable experience in achievement, quality and wellbeing when matched to experiences by white or non-minoritised cohorts.

But, and as extra incentive, there is also a major fallout for our white students, who are under-resourced and prevented from engaging with diverse opinions and race equality discussion, often throughout the duration of their entire education in a white-centric teaching environment.

This situation ill-prepares the majority of graduating students for work in a diverse global marketplace and renders them complicit in maintaining white-centricity through cultural ignorance.

I, and the 70 academics from institutions all over the country who comprise FACE, are bound to ask: in the absence of a national framework for teaching excellence that engages directly with the question of race, and race inequality to invite student response, how does OfS plan to rectify this glaring deficiency?

For further engagement, please contact lead academic Pascal Matthias.

The author would like to thank FACE co-founders: Andrew Ibi, Pascal Matthias and Sharon Lloyd for their contributions to the arguments presented in this article.

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