We all need to take responsibility for racial inequalities in higher education

Last Friday Cabinet Office minister David Lidington launched a kind of compilation album of measures intended to address racial disparity in higher education. These included a review of the Race Equality Charter, a review of evidence on reducing ethnic disparities in research, a closer focus on ethnicity in access and participation plans and the development of the Office for Students’ Unistats website replacement.

It is hardly a bad thing for ministers to use their power to command media attention to promote the urgent need to address racial inequality in higher education. Some of these measures will focus minds; some of them might even not have been going to happen anyway. But, as two recent reports on race and ethnicity in higher education suggest, culture will eat metrics for breakfast when it comes to changing the picture for Black and ethnic minority students and staff.

The first is an independent report exploring targeted interventions to improve outcomes for underrepresented and disadvantaged ethnic groups. It was originally commissioned by the Office for Fair Access, and subsequently published by the Office for Students to accompany Lidington’s announcement. The second is the report authored by Nicola Rollock for UCU on the experience of Black female professors in UK higher education.

Cultures that marginalise

These reports demonstrate the complex and pernicious ways that higher education cultures can enable behaviours that marginalise and exclude. Rollock’s respondents, for example, detail incidents of “passive aggressive acts, avoidance, undermining and exclusion”. These sorts of incidents create an exhausting double bind – to process one’s own emotional response so as to avoid being labelled angry or irrational, and to redouble one’s efforts to perform to prove oneself worthy of one’s position in the teeth of the covert scepticism of one’s peers.

The authors of the OfS report record concerns over a lack of discussion of racism and discrimination, insufficient Black or minority ethnic leaders and/or leaders with the critical perspective to drive action in this area, the perpetuation of deficit models, with interventions based on racist stereotypes. Also noted was the failure to involve Black and minority ethnic students in the design and delivery of targeted interventions, as well as a lack of diversity in the curriculum.

To expect Black and minority ethnic students and staff to report specific incidents of racial microaggression using conventional complaint systems is to invite a conversation in which those experiences are explained away or minimised. Structural inequality is so pernicious precisely because it is hidden behind a bland facade of emails left unanswered, ideas overlooked, invitations unextended or contributions in seminars or meetings shot down. Each individual incident is easily accounted for – but when experienced on a daily basis, the effect is demoralising and excluding. Often it is difficult even to find the words to explain what is happening, especially if you do not happen to be versed in the relevant critical theory.

This is not to say that complaints procedures should not be developed further, especially where there is evidence of systematic bullying or harassment. But that will not be nearly enough. There needs to be widespread active and positive interventions to shape the culture higher education operates in so that the privileged White majority can understand how behaviours and prejudices play out in real interactions with Black and minority ethnic colleagues and students.

Rollock’s report for UCU is the first time that we have been offered a deep insight into the experiences of Black female professors in higher education, and the sector should read it, embrace it and support future efforts like it.

The OfS report makes some creative recommendations about how we can structure conversations about how culture is shaping our behaviours and perceptions. A Community Cultural Wealth approach elaborated by Jacqueline Stevenson sets out six alternative forms of “capital” and questions for collective deliberation as a counterpoint to tacit, received forms of cultural capital. The report also recommends the use of a participatory action research methodology which is driven by the concerns of participants to develop interventions with people rather than on their behalf.

No person of influence in a university, whether a committee chair, head of department, dean of faculty, SU president, or the person who decides whose IT kit gets fixed first, should be exempt from being part of these kinds of conversations or from taking part in the action that should follow.

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