This blog by Amatey Doku, Former Vice-President for Education at the National Union for Students, originally appeared in HEPI report 120 The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequalities in higher education
Over the last few years, the topic of institutional racism in higher education has been put back on the agenda. From racist incidents and hate crimes on campuses, to an increased awareness of the black and minority ethnic (BME) attainment gap data, the higher education sector has had to confront some very difficult questions about the role that universities play in the reproduction of structural inequalities. It is not the first time that these issues have been raised, but universities are now under more pressure than ever before to explain the 13.6 per cent BAME attainment Gap.
The Office for Students (OfS) backed up by the Government’s Race Disparity Audit announced that, for the first time, universities will be set targets to reduce the BME Attainment Gap. The National Union of Students and Universities UK have recently published a report sharing some of the best practice in the sector for tackling these disparities, work that will be taken on by Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education, a new Evidence and Impact Exchange. All this amounts to greater pressure for universities to review, assess and redesign their institutional processes, procedures and strategies to rectify these disparities.
However, while the ethnic diversity of students varies across the sector, with some institutions having a majority of their students from BME backgrounds, the staff profiles rarely match that diversity. According to HESA, only 16 per cent of academic staff are BME, which drops to 10 per cent for professors, figures which are even more stark for women, or for specific groups within the broad category of ‘BME’. The result is that the profile for those charged and accountable for implementing strategies to reduce these disparities rarely have the lived experienced of those students affected.
In light of this, some universities will continue regardless, conscious or unconscious of the problem, and seek to design strategies which they think will improve outcomes. Others will look to students and staff from those backgrounds and seek to take guidance from them about what should be done and how. On the face of it, the latter approach appears to be the right thing to do; how could a university plan and implement change in tackling the attainment gaps without having those affected at the heart of the change?
However, there are significant limitations to an approach which places the burden on tackling the attainment gap solely on BME staff and students.
For BME staff, who have successfully beaten the odds and navigated their way to positions within higher education, they often find themselves hugely stretched. As a quick and simple fix to tackling these disparities, some universities try to increase the sites of representation of BME individuals throughout the existing governance structures. It is often those who have spoken up, asking for change within the institution, who find themselves called upon to take up these places first.
However, as anyone who has been involved in university governance will attest, this can be a hugely time-consuming commitment, on top of much of the unrecognised labour they are doing already. BME academics also often find themselves making up for the lack of culturally competent support services in universities going above and beyond what is required to mentor, support and advocate for students. This is particularly stark in most Russell Group universities where the proportion of BME students sits well below the sector average. It is rare that this additional work is acknowledged or factored into work plans. This in turn, could have a detrimental impact on their own research output or career progression.
BME students can also find themselves facing similar challenges. Students have been at the cutting edge of protesting, campaigning and lobbying for action on attainment gaps but now that universities are facing external monitoring, many find themselves having to play a slightly different role. In some cases, students are called to sit on committees, attend meetings, help organise events and support the drafting of strategies. Students may often find themselves torn between wanting to seize opportunities to influence change, but doing so within dense structures, required to provide complex solutions, all on top of their degree and the pressures of studying. Higher education institutions often find themselves overly reliant on students’ expertise to provide some of the answers to these issues.
There is also a power dynamic which affects both staff and students which may limit the extent to which problems can be identified and remedies sought. Universities will have to confront challenging questions about how higher education reproduces structural inequalities, which will inevitably implicate the senior management teams. Without recognising the power dynamic of BME staff being on the university’s payroll, it will be hugely challenging for some staff to feel comfortable being open about their experiences or to be critical of their employer. Given how few they are in number it may also be almost impossible for those experiences to be anonymised, even if collated externally.
BME students are subject to the same imbalance of power. While university is meant to be a departure from the ostensibly ‘passive’ teaching methods of secondary school education, towards more co-production and independent learning, where students take a more active role in their education, it is unclear whether BME students are supported to make that same transition. A lot of work on the BME attainment gap points to a lack of ‘sense of belonging’ at universities for BME students, and the effect that that may have on students’ confidence to speak up about their educational experience should not be underestimated.
On most other issues where high-level strategic change is required, universities will often look externally for strategic advice and support. Consultants, sector bodies and contractors usually do the bulk of work in drawing up strategies, proposing solutions and in some cases support in their implementation. Universities will often pay sizeable amounts for that level of support but when it comes to equality and diversity, and more broadly, the BME student experience, which also requires high-level strategic transformation, there appears to be less investment. That is in part down to the lack of sector bodies / consultancies organisations that have specific offerings to institutions in this area. The expertise exists, but very few existing Equality and Diversity consultancies or organisations have expertise in the student experience and very few organisations who specialise in student experience and engagement have expertise on the BME student experience. The organisations which appear to be leading the way in this area are in fact students’ unions but the resource that students’ unions have to conduct this level of research varies wildly across the sector.
Each university will have to take an evidence-based approach to tackling the BME Attainment Gap. Demographics, courses, type and size of institution, and the specific ethnic groups under the ‘BME’ banner, must inform any interventions. But how those interventions are reached and how they are implemented are as important for institutions to avoid simply reproducing these inequalities elsewhere.
There are a number of things that universities could consider, when setting out to tackle these disparities.
For BME staff, universities should recognise and be open about the power imbalance that exists for them and ensure that no complaints, sharing of experiences or suggestions for change compromise their employment and progression through the institution. Any extra work that they are doing informally either to support the university in the implementation of plans, or in supporting students who feel unable to get support elsewhere, should be factored into their workplans and they should be remunerated accordingly.
For BME students, universities should work with students’ unions to ensure that there is support for students who engage with the universities’ efforts to tackle the issues. If a plan requires significant amount of students’ time, effort and expertise, measures must be taken to ensure that students are not disadvantaged from engaging and where possible remunerated accordingly.
Finally, the higher education sector should invest in sector-wide bespoke high-level strategic support for institutions to support closing attainment gaps, increasing progression for BME students into further study and diversifying their staff profile. This sector-owned support could also relieve the pressure on BME students and staff who are often expected to find the solutions while also still struggling to navigate those very same issues and barriers.
Finally, more research is required to see where the burden and labour is falling within institutions and across the sector. The targets, the strategies, the public pledges and the sector buy-in are very encouraging. The next step is to ensure that all these strategies are implemented in a way which genuinely tackles the inequalities without reproducing more elsewhere.