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White Elephant #1: Race matters: Addressing competing inequalities in higher education

  • 20 September 2019
  • By Professor Kalwant Bhopal

This blog by Professor Kalwant Bhopal originally appeared in HEPI report 120 The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education.

The year 2019 marks 20 years since the publication of the Macpherson report (1999). The Macpherson report was published as a result of an inquiry on the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Macpherson defined institutional racism as follows:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

Current scholarship on race in UK higher education consistently highlights the pervasiveness of institutional racism, which persists despite the presence of equality and diversity policies and the 2010 Equalities Act. Institutional racism works in overt and covert ways. In its covert form, racism is felt in black and minority ethnic (BME) staff exclusion from decision-making practices and cultural insensitivity, and in the performance and reproduction of the university as an elite white space at all levels of the institution.

The result and effects of institutional racism can be seen in the significant under-representation of BME staff in UK higher education institutions, and particularly at senior levels in both academic and professional and support services. In terms of career progression in academic or professional and support services in higher education institutions, research has found racist practices in recruitment, promotions and pay. In addition to these measurable inequalities, the daily experience of racial marginalisation and exclusion remains deeply ingrained in the cultures of higher education institutions, and is a significant and normalised aspect of institutional life for many BME employees.

The insidiousness of racist practices across the higher education sector has proved difficult to challenge through equality and diversity policies. However, the Race Equality Charter has been found to offer the potential to address racism, not least by providing a framework through which difficult conversations can take place, and specific actions planned. Current research suggests that although the Race Equality Charter has been found to offer a potentially powerful framework for beginning to address institutional racism in higher education institutions, there is evidence that considerably more investment and incentive is needed in order for the Charter Mark to be as effective as is necessary.

Following successful pilots in previous years, the Race Equality Charter was launched in 2016 by the Equality Challenge Unit (now part of Advance HE). The Charter Mark process requires participating higher education institutions to form a self-assessment team whose main function is to complete a self-assessment report on their current position in relation to race equality and compile a four-year action plan to address outstanding concerns. As a result of this process, the higher education institution is awarded either a Bronze or Silver level Race Equality Charter award, which signals their commitment to work on race equality. Currently, 56 higher education institutions are members of the Race Equality Charter, and therefore working towards submitting an application for an award, and 10 higher education institutions hold a Bronze award. The Race Equality Charter focuses on inequalities experienced by students and in the university curriculum, as well as focusing on inequalities for staff.

The Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005, but became particularly prominent in universities after an announcement in 2011 by the Chief Medical Officer of the British Medical Research Council that applicants for medical research funding would not be considered unless their medical school or faculty held at least a Silver Athena SWAN award. Subsequently, the number of applications for the award increased by 400 per cent from 7.7 per cent to 29.7 per cent.

At present, there are significant differences between the Race Equality Charter and the Athena SWAN Charter. Because the Athena SWAN Charter has existed for some 11 years longer than the Race Equality Charter, and because it is tied to medical research funding, the Athena SWAN Charter is often both chronologically and hierarchically the top priority for higher education institutions in equality, diversity and inclusion work.

There is evidence to suggest that gender has taken precedence in policy making in higher education, with white middle-class women being the main beneficiaries of the Athena SWAN Charter. Recent findings from a project funded by the British Academy confirm this. Aiming to understand more about the impacts of the Charter Marks, and to identify examples of good practice, the project was the first of its kind to compare the Athena SWAN Charter and the Race Equality Charter. Key findings suggest that in some higher education institutions, the possibility of beginning work on the Race Equality Charter was further undermined by a perception that, while gender is a universal inequality, there are geographical areas of the UK where racial inequality is less of a concern. Gender was seen as a universal issue by respondents, in contrast to race which was seen as only a concern where racial diversity already exists. There is a risk here that white-only academic spaces are perpetuated by the myth that this is the natural or given state of a particular academic space, and should only be more diverse, paradoxically, if it already is diverse. Despite the contradictions of the race-geography argument, it was common across the findings, and therefore clearly represents a convincing justification within equalities work for a shift away from addressing white privilege through the perception that race, in contrast to gender, is a niche or context-specific inequality.

It was also clear that both the Athena SWAN Charter and Race Equality Charter offer an important framework for equalities work in UK universities. Respondents saw the Charter Marks as having enabled difficult conversations to take place, providing justification for the importance of undertaking work to address gender and racial inequalities in their institutions. In particular, the connection between the Athena SWAN award and medical research funding was seen as having made gender equality a priority. The result of this was that good practice for gender equality had become a standard item on meeting agendas and appointment panels, and data systems had improved so that metrics on gender in recruitment, promotion and retention were accessible and up to date. Department and school-level Athena SWAN awards were also identified as prompting localised as well as institution-wide changes to practice. Without the weight of a connection to research council funding or an established process of moving from institution-wide to department-level awards, the Race Equality Charter was nevertheless seen as a vital tool for negotiating the discomfort around discussing issues of race in the workplace, with the gathering of triangulated data providing an evidence base from which to work.

However, a common perception of the Race Equality Charter was as an additional, often impossible, equalities workload, largely due to experiences of working on the Athena SWAN Charter. As a consequence of this perception, higher education institutions responded by considering economising strategies such as combining roles focusing on race and gender, or arguing that the Race Equality Charter was less necessary in a particular institutional context. Given the potential, noted above, for the Charter Marks to enable difficult and necessary conversations on separate issues of gender and race equalities in higher education, and given the particular discomfort of discussions of race and racism, I would see these economising strategies as a backwards step. Rather than approaching the Race Equality Charter with a logic of economising and efficiency, I argue that the Race Equality Charter requires significant investment of resources and time at institution-wide and localised levels, as has been shown to be effective in relation to the Athena SWAN Charter.

Even if it is couched as a simple accident of timing and chronology, the effects of the introduction of the Race Equality Charter after the firm establishment of the Athena SWAN Charter are that the Race Equality Charter is a secondary equalities priority. While institutions can claim to be working on structural inequality by focusing time, resources and attention on gender equality, there is little or no imperative to shift the focus to uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in higher education. When race is introduced, so too is a weariness with the equalities agenda, an economising logic for diversity work, and justifications for inequalities more universal or more deserving than those of race. Given the stark and persistent racial inequalities in UK higher education, it is crucial that these inequalities are not allowed to be conflated with or replaced by more familiar discussions around gender equality. Through such a conflation, higher education institutions could appear to be conducting work on redressing inequality, while ensuring that the very issues that exclude people of colour from higher education are further excluded from discussions within it.

1 comment

  1. John bird says:

    The BAME gap is a feature of whole education system and initiatives taken within HE to address this are likely to be marginally effective. In addition, the structures of exclusion within HE have been known and recognised for a long time and yet there are gaps of up to 50% in BAME attainment in some universities.

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