Higher education and racism: Parliament hears evidence

There’s a sense in which a big part of today’s Commons Women and Equalities Committee hearing on racial harassment and discrimination could have happened any time in the past 15 years.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Nicola Rollock – citing Debbie McVitty on the “double bind” – perhaps put it as clearly as it was possible to do:

There’s a job description that we all share, and then there is an additional job placed on people of colour

If anything, this job has gotten harder. Statistical measures of disadvantage – for staff and students – stubbornly refuse to budge. More intensive work, more ownership of the issue among everyone at universities in the UK, and more admission that this is everyone’s responsibility to do the work, will be needed to make a tangible difference.

And yet, political backing (in the governmental sense) appears to be tailing off.

Some universities are trying to take this seriously – and are facing “hyper-scrutiny” from some quarters for moves they make in that direction. Anti-racism is disparaged in some quarters and some parts of the government – placing pressure on universities who do try to act.

Nicola could have been thinking about co-panelist David Richardson here. The UEA vice chancellor has tried to take ownership of the issue and support the structures and conversations – both within his own institution and in Universities UK. When he spoke about structural racism in universities he expected to get pushback against his own role in perpetuating inequality at his own university.

Instead Richardson experienced pushback on the very existence of institutional racism. He’s been trying to make space for those who refuse to countenance this view, to walk with them through the lived experience of black staff and students. Which becomes yet another job description for them to add to the list, much to his chagrin.

Larissa Kennedy found the whole idea of questioning whether universities need to take “sides” in this “debate” laughable.

The level of privilege needed to see this as a “debate” is shocking

The NUS president also had to deal with the “oppression olympics”, and fielded questions from all sides on the Lowkey affair and historic NUS racism. All she could do at this point was point to – and to look forward to the findings of – the external review of antisemitism in the NUS set up with the support of the Union of Jewish Students. She wanted to be clear that the offer of a segregated space for Jewish attendees at conference away from Lowkey did not happen as described.

She agreed with Nicola that the lived experiences of staff and students were two sides of the same coin – and highlighted the discrimination still faced by black students in accommodation and on campus should be seen alongside the overrepresentation of black staff in casualised roles and underrepresentation in senior roles.

The evidence session also included Arun Verma, who is responsible for the Race Equalities Charter at AdvanceHE. More than others he had to play to an audience outside the room – namely those MPs and “government sources” that had been so unsparing in their criticism of the endeavour. He had to walk a line between emphasising the power of the charter process in promoting the evidence-led conversations in providers that could lead to change without requiring them to sign up to structural racism, critical racism, trigger warnings and the rest of it – all while admitting that, as of yet, we had not seen the systemic change that those in the room would like to see.

Again, Nicola nailed the problems universities face in responding properly to provocations like the REC:

The government needs to show more understanding in the way it thinks about racism. We can’t expect universities to be bold and courageous on this issue given the current political climate.

And without government (and regulatory – there were some fairly pointed questions from MPs about who regulated universities and what levers they could pull) support – especially as senior leaders are beginning to buy into this agenda fully – we could absolutely be having the same conversations in another 15 years.


2 responses to “Higher education and racism: Parliament hears evidence

  1. “And yet, political backing (in the governmental sense) appears to be tailing off.” Perhaps because they have finally realised that no matter how equal opportunities are there are those who seek to use racial differences as a wedge to divide, as can be seen in the American university and political systems, with the long term goal of destroying Western democracies from within.

  2. Why is ‘lived experience’ the new buzz phrase? Is it the postmodernist view of there being no objective truth? Just ‘your truth’? It feels weak and unscientific.

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