Universities must be held accountable for their action on racism

PhD candidate Daniel Akinbosede explores the options for staff and students aiming to secure accountability for institutional plans to tackle racial inequality.

The re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement into the mainstream will be remembered as a globally transformative moment in 2020.

African Americans and their allies are pushing legislators to discuss and implement policies which will work to defund the police: an important step on the road to “abolishing” the institutions that took the lives of Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Natasha McKenna, Michelle Cusseaux and hundreds of others.

Here in the UK, many universities have been falling over themselves to document their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and show their commitment to “tackling racism in all its forms.” Several of these universities were ridiculed as a result.

Black students and staff  took the opportunity publicly to recount traumatic racist experiences that are far too common across UK academia. The #BlackInTheIvory hashtag on Twitter laid bare the experiences of Black academics on both sides of the Atlantic. Harrowing accounts of microaggressions, institutional and systemic failings reminded us of what we already know: UK universities can be very racist spaces.

The jury is in

What’s worse is that the people who run them already know this, but have shown few signs of prioritising the reforming or dismantling of racist structures within their own institutions. The assumption still lingers that academic institutions are filled with people far too educated and accomplished to be racist; the data paints a completely different picture:

  • Nationally, the awarding gap for undergraduate Black students is at 28.3 per cent
  • Black students are more than twice as likely to drop out than their white counterparts
  • Fewer than one per cent of 21 000 professors identify as Black (only 0.2 per cent are Black women)
  • There are officially zero Black academics in executive management
  • Black academics face a 14 per cent pay gap and for Black women, it’s compounded with a gender pay gap.

University leaders have known about these gaps and institutional issues for years. There was no race to post statements when the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported that a quarter of ethnic minority students had experienced racial harassment since starting their course, 20 per cent of those students had been physically attacked as a result, and 56 per cent had experienced racist name-calling or insults.

The point is, the jury has been in for a long time, so why should we believe university leadership on their commitments now? Or more importantly, how do we hold them accountable for making good on them?

Tools for accountability

At my institution, membership of the Advance HE Race Equality Charter (REC) programme has been a huge motivator in acknowledging some institutional problems. Though far from the perfect solution to all of academia’s race problems, the REC is a gateway to self-assessment and public reconciliation with the fact that these gaps do exist.

But there is a long way to go. Of the 165 higher education institutions in the UK, there are currently 62 members of the REC – or 38 per cent – only 16 of which have earned the bronze award. According to Advance HE, the bronze award “acknowledges commitment and preparation to act.” And most of the non-members don’t make a habit of publishing the data that would be required to start the process of self-reflection and accountability.

A key requirement to earning an award is surveying staff and students, which can be one of the first opportunities Black students and staff have to outline their experiences of racism directly to their respective institution.

In the absence of published data, other means are available to drive transparency. The Freedom of Information request I submitted forced my university to release data on the institution’s awarding gap for undergraduate ethnic minority students, data I was then able to use to challenge university leadership.

Black staff and students

For member institutions, the REC drives any existing race equity initiatives and is often instrumental in proposing new ones. But it matters who leads this agenda. Packing the REC self-assessment team with knowledgeable anti-racist staff and students will hopefully help move the Overton window from lightweight diversity and inclusion policies to decolonial and anti-racist ones.

Black staff have been organising against systemic racism for years, both in scholarly work and within staff networks. Their unacknowledged and unrewarded labour should not remain on the fringes of academic life. Some universities can boast of having globally renowned experts on race and decolonialism amongst their ranks.

These lifetimes of scholarly activism are rarely rewarded with institutional elevation. It seems reasonable that these academics, so celebrated in their fields be promoted to the leadership positions they have already more than earned, where they have the positional power to steer their universities toward anti-racism.

There’s also student representation. Though most students’ unions have a long way to go themselves, electing anti-racist sabbatical officers can be an effective way to make anti-racism a permanent part of the agenda – something that’s been seen a lot more in recent years.

But elected representatives can only achieve so much without a base of support. There are many examples across the country of cultural societies such as  African-Caribbean Societies or Islamic societies pushing for race equity changes within their unions. These passionate student activists should be encouraged and supported to run for elected positions where they can take the fight to managers.

Recently, Imperial College London has removed an imperialist motto from the university crest,  University College London has renamed buildings honouring prominent eugenicists and Bristol university is reviewing building names and logos amid association with slave traders. While all this is progress, we must remind university leadership that they are only scratching the surface and that systemic racism can exist without outwardly racist villains.

Racism in UK academia runs nearly as far back as its inception and addressing it will not be easy. Students and staff should continue to demand that their universities to publish detailed anti-racist actions plans that can be scrutinised and improved by the university community. These action plans should be fully costed and must come with sensible timeframes.

Too often, universities make promises and commitments that are more rhetorical than practical. Which serve more to silence dissent than address the racist systems they create and uphold for Black students and staff. This time, we need to hold them publicly accountable.

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