Why are universities scared of positive action?

Students and academics are calling for positive action measures to address structural racism. But what does positive action against racism look like, and why do we need it?

Positive action means specifically targeting programmes, funding, or other work to support under-represented and marginalised people. Positive action is distinct from affirmative action, which is more permissive (but not legal). Positive action might involve targeting recruitment activity at a particular group, whereas an affirmative action measure could involve recruitment quotas relating to a particular protected characteristic.

Responses to the EHRC report on racial harassment released this week demonstrate the many approaches to addressing racism. The report was, as a number of Black academics and students have made clear, overly incident-focused – and didn’t put racial harassment firmly in the context of structural racism. In response to the report, Kehinde Andrews wrote that universities need to “stop focusing on incidents and overhaul the structures that perpetuate them”. The report’s recommendations were mostly reactive rather than structural, focusing on fixing broken reporting systems and leadership gaps.

A reactive, process-oriented series of recommendations fits with an incident-based approach to racism. But a combination of reactive and proactive work is helpful if the goal is to target structural racism. Reforming reporting systems to make them more transparent facilitates the reporting of racism. But these interventions need to be married with proactive measures, an example of which might be ring-fencing PhD funding for Black students, to acknowledge the cumulative effect of racism in higher education.

And universities seem confused about proactive, targeted, positive action measures: an Office for Fair Access-commissioned report on ethnicity targeting published earlier this year found that universities didn’t understand it, and in many cases thought it was illegal (confusing affirmative and positive action). The OFFA report reminded universities that they have a legal right to use positive action measures.

Put your positive action where your mouth is

Evidence-based positive action, co-produced with people you’re targeting, can help students and staff across the university lifecycle, from recruitment and outreach work to mentoring, and targeted funding. If the sector wants to address structural racism as well as its manifestations, it needs to incorporate more positive action work.

A variety of different initiatives led by Black students and academics recently published work which incorporates positive action recommendations. For example, anti-racist student activists occupied a Goldsmiths building and their list of demands, which the university has now promised to meet, were notably positive-action focused. Specifically, the students requested Black and minority ethnic wellbeing advisors, targeted outreach to engage with local BAME communities, funding for a reparative justice programme with BAME academic researchers, and the reinstatement of scholarships for Palestinian students.

Just after the occupation, Sofia Akel published a report on racism at Goldsmiths which included positive action recommendations around staff diversity at the students’ union. Akel encouraged the union to consult HR professionals, do a race equality audit and develop a strategy around “increased meaningful racial representation”. It’s legal to use positive action in recruitment processes: for example, an employer can run targeted development programmes, or, when choosing between candidates of equal merit, an employer can take under-representation of a protected characteristic into account.

Leading Routes, an initiative to support young Black academics found that over three years only 1.2 per cent of UKRI funded PhD studentships went to Black students. Their report recommended various structural changes to doctoral programmes, but they also recommended ring-fencing funding for Black postgraduate students. This wouldn’t be a startling move: in November 2018, UCL announced new PhD scholarships for Black and ethnic minority students, in response to data suggesting that Black students weren’t pursuing academic careers.

Positive action forms part of most reports and recommendations relating to racism in higher education.

The legal position

Clearly, some institutions are comfortable with positive action measures to address racism. But why are others slow to follow suit? Wondering whether positive action is legal might still come top of a university’s list of concerns.

Positive action is legal if it meets three conditions. The action must be targeted at people:

  • who experience disadvantage connected to a protected characteristic,
  • who have different needs relating to that characteristic,
  • and who currently participate in whatever the activity is at disproportionately lower rates.

Advance HE has some specific examples of positive action projects. Basically, positive action needs to be evidence-based and clearly demonstrate the benefit of targeting a particular group of students.

Once universities have accepted that positive action is legal, what are they worried about? Three things stand out: the sector seems uncomfortable talking about race, institutions might be attached to the perception that positive action can be patronising or even discriminatory, and finally, there’s the myth of the aspiration gap.

Building confidence

Positive action and affirmative action are sometimes deemed patronising, on the basis that they undermine meritocratic principles. Cited in a Guardian article on all-women lists, British financier Helena Morrissey described EU-proposed boardroom quotas as patronising. But the suggestion that positive action is patronising is based on the assumption that we live in a meritocracy, and fails to acknowledge, or ignores, barriers to women or Black people succeeding. Positive action is about redistributing power and aiming for a meritocracy that we don’t have.

Positive action work might be hindered by a confidence gap. The OFFA report on ethnicity targeting involved a survey which found that universities weren’t confident in talking about race or racism, and didn’t have open and honest discussions about race. The report also found a lack of confidence, or even willingness, to deal with disclosures of racism.

A lack of confidence in talking about race isn’t a great reason to avoid positive action work. Should awkwardness or uncertainty, which can be addressed through talking and training, impede racial equality? Universities hold events and discussions which support women in leadership, or women in STEM – talking about gender, if often in a limited way, is clearly less taboo than it used to be. The sector must be able to get similarly comfortable talking about race and racism.

Then there’s the myth of the aspiration gap. In 2018, Damian Hinds, previous secretary of state for education, told universities that they needed to “raise aspirations among all working class communities”. There lingers a belief that working class communities, or Black communities, simply need to raise their aspirations, despite little evidence suggesting that they have low aspirations – as Richard Waller and Neil Harrison discuss on Wonkhe.

Focusing on the need to raise aspirations, or the false belief that we’re already in a post-racial society, or a meritocracy, doesn’t help Black students or staff. Crucially, focusing on perceived low aspirations rather than structural racism puts the onus on Black and minority ethnic students and staff, rather than racist cultures, people or policies.

Ultimately, white sector leaders would benefit from improving their confidence in talking about race and racism, working with Black students, academics and policy-makers, and avoiding unfounded assumptions that we’re in a post-race or truly merit-based society. If positive action is evidence-based, and, crucially, is co-produced with Black and minority ethnic people, it can galvanise cultural change.

At Wonkfest, we’ll be talking about racism in the sector with Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, Paulette Williams, founder of Leading Routes, Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, and Hamna Imran and Yesenia Ramirez, two student activists from Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action. See the Wonkfest programme for full session details.

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