We can’t separate the issues of race and reopening in universities

Tahmina Choudhery reflects on social media conversations about race and racism across higher education following the murder of George Floyd.

About a week ago I approached Wonkhe and asked whether there would be interest in a blog about the impact of Covid-19 on BAME students, and what genuine “no detriment” policies might mean.

I was going to write about systems and processes that could be changed, and to politely suggest that the UK higher education sector doesn’t necessarily have the best record when it comes to being in touch with its BAME students.

I was going to point out that if universities didn’t adapt the way they approached conversations about racial inequality, then by November it might become a real issue for the sector.

Then George Floyd was murdered.

Inevitability

Like so many I spent the first few days watching in horror at events from the US, and like others I have few words to convey how angry, sad and useless I have felt as I have watched the subsequent events play out with a grim sense of predictable inevitability.

But in the past few days something has changed. Students started calling both on their SUs and their universities to show solidarity and to take action. Suddenly that “conversation” about race and UK higher education wasn’t waiting until November – it was live.

University after university took to social media to put out statements. Some were strong, some impossibly generic. Some were from real people and leaders, others read more like corporate marketing material. But whatever form they took, one they were met with the same response – why do you suddenly care now?.

The conversations have all gone something like this:

University: “We have a commitment to exposing and challenging racial inequality”

Students: “Why don’t you have a single black professor then?”

University: “We stand together with our black students staff and communities”

Students: “I literally dropped out of your university because you took no action against racist bullying”

University: “We are proud of our diversity and welcome students from 140 different countries”

Students: “This vague statement isn’t even the bare minimum, why don’t you use words like race or black?”

University: “We have a Zero Tolerance approach to any harassment and work hard to create a welcoming and diverse experience”

Students: “Why don’t you ever take any actual action to support PoC, to diversify your curriculum or to listen to our concerns?”

I could go on and on. If you didn’t know that UK universities had a race problem… either you do now, or at the very least whoever manages your social media does.

Elitism

Looking around the country, it seemed the more “elite” the university, the more viscerally negative the response was to its social media statement. If there was a league table for positive social media responses to BLM statements then it wouldn’t look like any league which is published in newspapers.

I am proud to be at a university which has a track record of championing diversity and where the university statement received more positive responses than negative… but I still know there is much more we need to do. And if the last bruising last 72 hours for our sector tells us anything, it is that there is still a real problem involving universities and students of colour.

Pandemic response

Which is why the response to Covid-19 is going to matter so much. Many many studies globally have now shown that the virus and its impacts disproportionately affect BAME communities and exacerbates the inequalities which exist.

Two major conversations have been going on on social media this week when it comes to universities, and it’s as if nobody has drawn any links between the two. As well as the discussion about race, universities are thinking about opening up – and starting to make difficult decisions about who will get support, access, facilities or even contact with academics, services or eachother.

But this isn’t and should be seen as a separate conversation from the race issue – it’s directly linked. Why have so many Covid-19 working groups inside universities met this month without once talking about racial inequality – in the same universities whose social media accounts profess to care about the issue?

Covid-19 highlights inequalities in wealth, health and education – inequalities which we knew existed before, but which the virus shines a light on. So how we respond to it in September will really matter, becaused the decisions taken now over how courses and campuses will work will either make the racial disparities better, or make them even worse. We have only got one chance as a sector to show that we take these inequalities seriously and it is fast approaching.

Practicalities

Here are some of the things I’m talking about.

  • Students of colour are more likely to be affected by a bereavement as a result of Covid-19, so will need additional support and compassion.
  • Students of colour are going to be more at risk if they get Covid-19, so will feel less confident about taking public transport to get to campus.
  • Students of colour are more likely to lack the home technology to participate effectively in digital learning.
  • Students of colour are more likely to be the first in the family to attend university so will lack the knowledge about “how universities work” which is normally levelled up through an induction program.
  • Students of colour are more likely to have been fined or arrested as a result of the legislation brought in to tackle Covid-19 and that will need real empathy and understanding.

There are hundreds more implications, discoverable if we talk to students of colour and listen – properly – to the things they tell us.

And it is against that backdrop that universities need to consider how they approach September carefully.

Fast and furious

There is a version of the next academic year where the fast paced changes being enacted in working groups to be ready for September place racial equality front and centre – where we use this as a “reset” moment to introduce a new approach which alleviates the BME awarding gap, diversifies the curriculum and makes people of colour feel welcomed in HE spaces.

There is another version – where dramatic changes take place without an equality impact assessment. Where the fact that PoC are more likely to be affected by Covid-19 isn’t taken into account, and where existing inequalities are exaggerated rather than improved. In that version, students of colour will feel even less welcome in higher education, and it will create hurt which it will take years to heal.

Racism is a societal problem, and it would be wrong to put the blame of it on higher education alone – but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold ourselves to a higher standard. Higher education has the power to be an enormous driver for social change, and can be an engine for equality and social justice. So many students of colour like me have had our lives enriched through university, but that shouldn’t make us complacent about the steps needed in the new academic year.

So in that spirit I have a few things to stop doing and a few things to start doing.

Problems and solutions

First, please stop saying we don’t have a race problem. If students want their work marked anonymously then responding with “but I don’t think we have a race problem here” makes you a part of the problem. The whole world has an unconscious bias problem and universities don’t form the one bubble which doesn’t.

Next, stop telling us to “tone down” our language. If asking for a “decolonised curriculum” makes people feel moderately uncomfortable then that’s a good thing. Progress never happens without some people being left feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Stop using students to “celebrate” diversity whilst excluding them from decision making. You can’t wheel out your Afro Caribbean Society, your Islamic Society or your Black Students campaign for open days and prospectuses, but then ignore them when they raise concerns and expect anything other than the social media backlash we witnessed this week. If these groups were placed front and centre in university decision making, then it would make commitments to diversity real.

Start a leaders of colour program for staff within your university. When so many universities don’t have a single senior leader of colour, it’s inevitable that commitments to diversity will feel tokenistic.

Start to seriously diversify your syllabus. As a law student I was asked to read 1000s of things. Not a single one was written by a Muslim Woman. If we’re taught that nobody like us has ever made a single meaningful contribution to the field of study we are in, then why should we believe we can?

Now, and in the future, support your SU to enable you to listen and then act on the experiences that your students of colour have. And I don’t mean look at the split metrics, or look at the satisfaction surveys. I mean build trust and really listen.

And finally and most importantly: start carrying out equality impact assessments on the decisions you’re making about September. You have a choice – changes to support services and academic provision will either improve equity, or harm it.

Ultimately this September is going to be a test for whether the 280 characters universities shared on twitter about equality this week marked the beginning of a renewed commitment to tackling inequality, or just a desire to be seen to do something. I am going to be devoting my summer to making sure that it’s the former, and I would urge you to do the same.

18 responses to “We can’t separate the issues of race and reopening in universities

  1. Yet another plea to tackle long standing inequalities across the sector; yet more vague platitudes in response. We have the evidence, and the tools to tackle inequalities, it feels we’re still lacking the will or the know how.

  2. Thanks Tahmina for this great article – will be sharing with colleagues in hopes to progress our discussions over these next weeks!

  3. Great piece which I hope will not fall on deaf ears. UK universities are so much implicated in propping up white supremacy, mostly without even realising this, I feel nothing short of a revolution is needed. Maybe COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd can be the trigger.
    We can only hope and keep on making the case.
    White people in positions of power need to become ‘race’ traitors, that is they need to take responsibility for their whiteness and then develop personal and collective strategies to redistribute/hand over power. But most white academics I know who have power to make a difference, for example, in recruitment and selection, tend to end up cloning themselves. Others build academic careers on the back of colonialism and racism but hardly become engaged on the ground with those very same communities.

  4. Believe in change for the better being possible and this will spur us all on to make that change.

  5. Excellent article!
    Especially now with the George Floyd’s event, this theme is very pertinent for the actual situation everywhere.
    Thank you for sharing your insights.

  6. HE approach to equality is one of good intention and little actual progress. Attempted success in charter marks, whether Athena Swan or Race Charter marks is pitiful. And like many other standard based approaches that attempt to process engineer change they symbolise where the problem lies.

    The issue of inequality is systemic and cultural. It is also intersectional. And herein lies one of the problems. Race inequality is seen as an issue of inequality not one of race. HE is colourblind in the most pernicious way.

    I am less keen on some of the “right the wrong” approaches that seem to mirror those found in the USA. What is required is a serious dialogue on changing the paradigms. Improving the processes will not remove discrimination. It will only make it more efficient!

    Simon Stone
    Change Consultant.

  7. Thank you for this article. We all need to start knocking on doors and holding people to account.

  8. Thank you for writing this – you have identified many of the issues that HE needs to face up to and suggested practical approaches to start addressing them. As Sam Girdham notes above, accountability is an important aspect of this and an area where a lot more work is needed.

  9. a wonderfully written piece with both passion and powerful arguments. Agree with all that you said and of course there is the ‘attainment gap’ which is also given as a problem with and of the students to be overcome rather than a systemic problem. Your piece makes me glad to have been a small part of Middlesex SU in the past.

  10. Great piece, let’s hope this topic remains topical. Sadly in my area of Audio, Music Technology, and Music Production, we are tragically (and criminally), behind any significant progression for gender inequality as well. (Of course, that is easy to say as a white male).

  11. ‘UK universities are so much implicated in propping up white supremacy, mostly without even realising this, I feel nothing short of a revolution is needed’: ABSOLUTELY. Thank you, Tahmina, for an impassioned piece. As Gurnam says, though, after a number of years in a variety of HEIs, I am becoming more and more doubtful as to whether the contemporary neoliberal university is the place to ignite real societal transformation, hence the important rise in co-ops and free universities, such as the (unfortunately now former) Social Science centre in Lincoln, and the (fortunately burgenoning) Co-operative college in Manchester. As regards the BAME ‘question’ in HE, here’s a piece (rant!) I shared earlier this year: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/decolonisation-isnt-as-simple-as-plenty-of-people-suggest/. Lastly, I highly recommend the work of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Tang (‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’).

  12. The issues you raise are also as pertinent in the non-academic side of Universities where there can be a distinct lack of black faces in positions of decision making/authority. We seem to make up lower graded jobs, including those that may have been working as ‘essential workers’ through this pandemic. Until posts at senior levels within the ‘support/central services’ of Universities, not just academia, have black faces then there is a very real chance that BAME student experiences may change but power and authority will remain in the same white hands.

  13. Thank you for this article. It has taught me things I’ve never thought about and I’ve worked alongside HE (not a decision maker unfortunately) for a longtime. Of course I feel embarrassed to say that but I realise now that I need to get over embarrassment and get on with educating myself. I may not have power to make these decisions but I recognise my power to influence by being informed.

  14. A engaging and thoughtful article, thank you. We (HEIs) need to start openly talking about race and challenging ourselves on our practices, curriculum, and language. This needs to come from the top with a ‘genuine’ commitment to tackling issues of race by firstly acknowledging our role in creating predominantly white academic spaces. Too many, still only see racism as a societal issue that isn’t present in HE, or in their institution, programme or module. Thanks also for sharing some practical implications on our BAME students, which will not be as apparent to our white students (or staff).

  15. OMG. There should be a league table for positive social media responses to BLM statements…as a BLACK-TRANS WOMXN I feel like no University cares about my feelings enough. A league would help me choose where to study, and make me feel included.

  16. As a Black man (now Professor) I really hate articles like this. Instead of people building bridges in a positive atmosphere, we get: castigation, sanctimony, safetyism, simple morlaising narratives.

    “The whole world has an unconscious bias problem” – claims like this are just laughable. The whole world? Every country? Every Culture? In the same way? To the same degree? The same dynamics?

    “If we’re taught that nobody like us has ever made a single meaningful contribution to the field of study we are in, then why should we believe we can?” – do we need mollycuddling like this? I’m a Black man, I studied Philosophy, I managed fine. Be an adult.

  17. Well actually, not everyone “manages fine”. Muslim women are very disadvantaged when it comes to employment despite many Muslim women being highly educated to degree level and beyond. To say “be an adult” when clearly structural racism holds back the social mobility of many BAME students across the UK shows your ignorance. Students need BAME role models in their academic spaces just liked Tahmina expained. It makes a significant difference to their academic and social experience at University.

    Please don’t disregard the experiences of other people just because you “managed fine” and especially the experiences of students.

  18. Great piece Tahmina! We’re lucky to have you raising this @ MDX and wider, we need more content like this to educate ourselves about the real equality issues that exist. I agree with Nazia, not everyone “manages fine” like Markus has been fortunate enough to do and I don’t see anything negative about raising awareness and keeping equality topical

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