Time to talk about race equality

Despite the diversity of institutions across the UK, the debate about ensuring diversity in institutions tends to be narrowly focussed, particularly in the mainstream press.

Time and again the public is invited to look at a couple, maybe a handful, of “top” institutions as undisputed symbols of national academic excellence and employability. Stories almost always focus on full-time undergraduate provision, and on school-leavers. When it comes to “race” and ethnicity, different identities tend to be aggregated into “BAME” (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) experiences: terminology with both strengths and limitations.

Such a narrow focus can draw attention to a problem in a powerful way: it can be a way to draw a line in the sand about expectations of a wider complex HE system in tackling injustices, lost voices, talents and opportunities. It can also lead to greater accountability, self-assessment and hard questions about white privilege. All this is wholeheartedly acknowledged, and discussed elsewhere in Wonkhe today. The following is meant as an “and” and not a “but”.

If we’re going to move forward on race (in)equality amidst a focus on who gets a place at university, what lessons can we draw from all these media and policy narratives about “convincing the unconvinced” that structural inequality even exists (let alone requires action)? There are some common barriers seen by those who do “diversity work” to moving forward as a sector, even in the middle of a (stumbling) national conversation on ‘race’.

Lesson 1: the UK is still debating what “fairness” looks like

The Schwartz review of 2003 brought a whole new level of professionalism to university admissions in the UK, including a dedicated community of practice, supported by experts like SPA. In the rush for transparent selection processes, however, the sector sometimes struggled with the concept that to treat everyone fairly is not always the same as treating everyone the same. Equality is not the same as equity. Giving everyone equal opportunities (for example, a chance of entry based on specified subjects and grades) doesn’t lead to equal outcomes if it fails to reflect systemic inequalities or different needs (for example, disparity in support and schooling, subject choices influenced by external and internalised stereotyping, bias in selection processes).

Contextual admissions – particularly in terms of school-type and family socio-economic background – has been one the biggest concession to this understanding of inequality in terms of disadvantage in education. We have to remember that even now this is deemed controversial by some. So what happens if you bring in the question of ethnicity, whether that’s talking about more inclusive recruitment and outreach, or more structural changes to selection processes? Disadvantage and underrepresentation are not always the same thing, and we must be wary of approaches that perpetuate “deficit” models of BAME students (framing groups and individuals to be “helped” or “fixed” to better fit an unchanged system). Equally though providing a “fair” process needs to ensure honest discussion of structural racism, ethnic disparity in education, and how well-meaning “colour blindness” can actually enforce white privilege and denial.

The admissions debate exemplifies the national divide on understandings of fairness, “meritocracy” and how this all works in a competitive market. Some institutions are better at recruiting BAME students, or diversifying professions: how do we value that better? We have to acknowledge that outside the academy – and, if we’re honest, within it – there are still different understandings of how structural inequalities affect groups differently, and where (and how) the responsibility lies for “solving” this in our education system. Our answers to these questions (as a sector) will impact on our reputation with the public, and our own BAME staff and students. I hope that we will be more clearly committed to acknowledging our transformative power within wider society to say that we will change our systems to become fairer, and challenge seeming neutrality when we see evidence that it perpetuates inequality.

Lesson 2: a focus on numbers may not add up to equity

Highlighting statistics on underrepresentation of particular ethnicities can be a powerful way to increase awareness and understanding of things often not experienced and therefore not seen by majority groups in their institution. A focus on the quantitative can also help us measure and monitor, to challenge and hold accountable. No wonder the current regulatory environment is paying more attention to the numbers: the HERA transparency clause wants to see representation levels along the admissions funnel, while OfS has warned against trying to game TEF by bringing in fewer BAME students.

But if we fall too much into the habit of conceptualising race inequality as about representation we miss issues like experience, progression and racism: we focus on the diversity and not the inclusion. Simply put, institutions can have very high intakes for BAME students (aggregated or not), but that doesn’t mean all ethnicities are having equal experiences. For every quantitative conversation had in your institution, think about what qualitative experiences you’re missing: find ways of prioritising more complex narratives that are intersectional, individual and authentic.

Lesson 3: there’s no (one) easy answer

Easy in the sense of knowing what works, but also easy in the sense of making everyone happy. For example, my colleagues and I have been encouraging more use of tools available to institutions like positive action (targeted initiatives): perfectly legal, and we think could be impactful, though research suggests that depends on the depth of local understanding about race inequality. As a sector we are still somewhat risk averse to these sorts of measures, possibly due to them not being understood widely internally, but more often a fear of misunderstanding externally.

From our work we know that the process of discussing race and white privilege, deciding whether or not to target interventions by ethnicity, or making internal changes to admissions, recruitment, curricula: it’s hard. These are serious emotive topics and not just intellectual or administrative exercises. But they can be hard for different people for different reasons of course: white people doing diversity work always have to remember that to leave that work in the office when you go home is itself an example of white privilege.

We’ve said before that we are a learning sector. We should welcome the hard questions, and talk about complexity, but nuance mustn’t be used to distract. We must clearly communicate (and practise) principles of equity, evidence, and inclusion and work with those who challenge us. When the next round of headlines come out let’s use that prompt internally:

  • Let’s stay ambitious. Fairer representation by numbers should be a minimum goal. Institutions should be clear on their priorities around inclusion, racism, and liberating curricula. With clarity comes accountability: to BAME students, staff, alumni and communities. The Race Equality Charter is increasingly recognised as one framework for setting clearer actions.
  • Let’s innovate. Change is difficult, particularly when it is perceived as disruptive to a privileged majority. Leaders, academics, and professional services staff can encourage innovation in admissions processes, in course options, and curricula, by shouldering the risk. They can share research to increase the understanding of structural inequalities internally. Confidence can be built from evidence-based approaches and the understandings of race and ethnicity that so many academics – particularly BAME academics – have developed over decades of research. We can also look inward and look at diversifying leadership and both professional and academic staff cohorts.
  • Let’s work together. “Race” in HE is a conversation for the whole sector: to have amongst ourselves but importantly also one to have with schools and colleges, policy makers, local communities and the media. We can be braver about sharing our challenges and successes, learning from the successes (and challenges) of wider WP work. We can offer each other helpful constructive criticism from our very different types of institutions, provisions and student cohorts.

2 responses to “Time to talk about race equality

  1. You raise very apt points here. The most telling of which concerns the privilege of white people in the sector being able to leave work in the office, whilst for those with unheard, or unrecognised voices, that experience is lived 24/7. The sector could do more, but doing nothing – or at best, very little – becomes the easy policy choice when senior leaders also go home completely unaffected by decisions made to keep an homogenized academy. The homphily underpinning many of the sector’s Senior Leadership teams ensures that minimal progress is made. Until this is recognised, the marginalised will always have to follow a heroic deficit model to gain any traction.

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