Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

White Elephant #7: Looking the elephant in the eye – a few thoughts

  • 7 October 2019
  • By Fiona Ross

This guest blog was kindly contributed by Fiona Ross, Professor in the Joint Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and independent governor at Westminster University.

This HEPI collection of essays, written from multiple perspectives, is an excellent contribution to our understanding. I really liked the piece by Margot Finn, the President of the Royal Historical Society, who takes apart history as the “whitest” of disciplines and argues that acknowledging “both overtly and casually racist behaviours, which animate the experience of history teaching and learning in schools and university is a first step towards actively calling it out!”.

As the essays argue, racial disadvantage is systemic, and race in higher education is indeed “the elephant in the room”. It is evident in the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic people in academic and professional leadership roles and the huge and pervasive differences in degree classification and attainment between White and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students. In my view, the failure of universities to tackle this endemic undergraduate attainment gap reinforces cycles of disadvantage, leading to poor graduate outcomes and employment prospects, low representation of BAME students in doctoral training and subsequently academic careers.

These are complex multi-faceted social issues, and the problems go deeper and further than it was possible to discuss within the scope of these short thought leadership pieces. Even though there are no quick fixes, it is good to see HEPI influencing the development of coherent policy messages, which I wish had been around when I took on the role of institutional lead for equalities at Kingston University seven years ago.

This blog is a somewhat random download of thoughts and reflections arising from leading and implementing change in that role and subsequently in writing for publication together with Nona McDuff and a fantastic team of equality champions at Kingston.

The first thing I learned is that when leading equalities for the university and lifting the lid on sensitive issues, I had to think about my own positional power as a leader and white middle class woman. I had to get over my sense of inadequacy and lacking authenticity and instead think of myself as a “white ally”. This meant recognising the limits of my understanding, at the same time as listening to different perspectives and being prepared to confront complacency and defensiveness. Building alliances with the Board and the Vice-Chancellor was crucial in challenging this defensiveness in institutional practice, so that we could move away from a student deficit model to developing inclusive organisational cultures, systems and processes.

Secondly, information is power, but only if you take action on it. We did this by introducing the Inclusive Curriculum Framework with an embedded Value Added Metric to tackle the attainment gap. This is where BAME students are awarded far fewer good degrees than their white counterparts even when entry qualifications are taken into account. When I examined the Kingston data back in 2012 and saw the stark differences in student outcomes for students, we realised it was important not to collect more data, but to take action across the institution embracing disciplines, Schools, Faculties, academic and professional services. We were fortunate that Kingston University’s Director of Strategy and Planning designed for us a bespoke Value Added Metric. This highlights differences in attainment, which cannot be explained by student entry qualifications or subject of study, by drawing on actual degree classifications for all UK graduates over the previous five years. It can be applied at all levels ranging from the institution to individual programmes.

My third reflection – there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations. While the Value Added Metric, underpinned by the Inclusive Curriculum Framework, was a useful mechanism of change, it was most powerful when used as a vehicle for conversations. Talking at an individual level to module leaders and framing the metric within an open ended “no blame” conversation has built the trust for institutional change. It has generated important insights and understanding about how different students learn, particularly those who sometimes feel marginal or invisible, and may lack the confidence to ask questions, participate in discussions or seek help when they are struggling. These conversations across the institution have raised awareness of our BAME attainment gap, stimulated soul-searching about how we need to change and perhaps has contributed to (although attribution is always hard to prove) a substantial reduction in the gap and improvement in attainment over the last five years.

There is a risk in accounts, such as mine, of being seen as an oversimplification and reductive – so for those who are interested, the detail of our change approach has been published elsewhere. But finally, I can say we have learned that shifting the culture is not just about espousing values of inclusivity, but showing it in everyday leadership, commitment to change and aligning strategy systems and processes with outcomes.

As Shân Waring points out in her essay “the way we talk, or do not talk about race, are themselves part of the practices which create and embed inequality”. So I think we have to start to look at the white in the eyes of the elephant, experience the discomfort this gives rise to and find ways to at least start with making small changes in every day practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *