The murder of George Floyd last year, sparking widespread Black Lives Matter protests, shook the world. Coupled with the well-documented racial health inequalities exemplified in the pandemic, this has brought issues of race and racism to the forefront in the UK, including within the HE sector.
Since then, many institutions have published and updated strategies and action plans, setting out what they plan to do to tackle racial inequalities.
However, as with any strategy or plan, there is always the risk that well-designed documents are put together but little action follows. Universities who have committed to tackling these inequalities must think carefully about how to ensure that these strategies and plans lead to meaningful action in the long term.
Ultimately, for strategies to be effective, they need to be sufficiently comprehensive, establish effective mechanisms for governance and accountability, and provide the necessary resources needed to deliver on the work.
As a starting point, it is critical that the strategies and action plans are sufficiently comprehensive to address the full extent of racial inequality in the institution. These inequalities facing staff and students are hugely complex, and a whole-of-institution approach is critical to addressing them, so this must be reflected in the plans.
Take closing the BAME awarding gap as an example. Historically, attempts to close the gap have been driven by one-off set piece initiatives. Increasingly, universities are realising that structural changes right across the institution are required to meaningfully shift the dial.
Both academic and non-academic experiences are in scope; everything from what happens in the classroom to students’ campus experience, to engaging with student support and mental health services will need to be considered to effectively address these inequalities.
Failing to take a comprehensive view risks some of the biggest or most significant barriers not being addressed; ultimately setting up well-meaning initiatives established elsewhere to fail.
Comprehensive consultation with racially minoritised staff and students in the development of these strategies and action plans on an ongoing basis will ensure that critical areas are not missed out and that the root causes of issues are clearly identified.
Strategies must also be flexible to accommodate emerging issues that may occur over the lifetime of any plan.
Governance and accountability
Once the strategy or action plan is set, it is vital that there are effective governance structures in place and clear ongoing accountability for tackling these inequalities.
If no one has an answer to the all-important question, “where does this sit”, that should be a real cause for concern. The approach that each institution take to governance will likely be different. But whether it is in a group dedicated to looking specifically at a race action plan or a broader equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) group where this is given due time and consideration, regular monitoring and reporting against progress should be essential.
Representatives from black and minoritised students and staff should also be in those spaces, to provide a critical eye over progress, although the onus should not be on those individuals to deliver the work.
Governance structures should not, however, become an impediment to action. Where action should be taken quickly on an issue, the fact that the “race equality action group doesn’t meet for three months” should not be used as an excuse for why a decision cannot be taken.
The success of this work also lies in clear accountability. No matter how ambitious a strategy or action plan is, if it is not clear who is accountable for specific actions, the success of the plan is at risk.
Making it clear on the action plan which individuals are responsible for specific actions and measures gives the strategy a better chance of success.
Ensuring that equity, diversity and inclusion, and antiracism are prioritised throughout the institution is important. A select few institutions have begun including these actions in the performance objectives for senior leaders; this approach further increases accountability and signals how seriously the institution is willing to prioritise this work.
Finally, effective resourcing of this work is a must. A comprehensive strategy will highlight the scale of the challenge and these inequalities will not be reduced unless there is sustained resourcing over a period of time.
Staff need to be given the time to do the work required and undergo the necessary training. The burden should not fall to racially minoritised staff to resource antiracism efforts. Resources should be available for top-down initiatives as well as grassroots initiatives from self-organised groups of staff and students.
Increasingly, institutions are recruiting for senior EDI roles to have a seat around the senior management team table. This is a welcome development but is not the silver bullet; the responsibility cannot lie with a single individual to drive and be accountable for all equity and inclusion work throughout a whole organisation. All individuals will have a role to play in eliminating these inequalities and the resourcing should reflect that.
Ultimately, the test will be in whether or not the well-documented racial inequalities are reduced. Social, political, and now regulatory pressure means that the focus on race and racism is here to stay.
But if these issues are meaningfully confronted, and the actions prioritised and resourced, we will give ourselves a good chance at shifting the dial and driving meaningful change on race equity across the sector.