This blog was kindly contributed by Kirstie-Anne Woodman, a recent International Relations graduate from the University of Birmingham. Kirstie-Anne is currently interning at a diversity and inclusion consultancy agency, Worth of Mouth Services. You can find Kirstie-Anne on LinkedIn.
It took me a long time to find a dissertation topic which invigorated me and I felt a true passion for. Then, by chance, I came across Nicola Rollock’s ‘Staying Power’ paper, a report on the career experiences of Black female professors in the UK. While reading, it hit me, I had never had, or even seen a Black professor at my university – let alone a Black female professor. This led me to think of all of my university experiences which had differed to those of my peers due to my Blackness. I read reports regarding the Black attainment gap, the Black drop-out rate and the need to decolonise curriculums. For the first time, feelings of otherness that I had felt throughout my entire university journey, were explained and quantified in academic terms. And so I wrote ‘Black Academic, White Space: The Insidious Legacy of Institutional Racism at Top-tier UK Universities’.
This brought to the forefront the UK’s own gross plight with racism – and so I remembered, echoed in many places including the HEPI collection on racial inequalities in higher education that advocacy for Black lives is nothing without concrete action.
Halpin’s UK Universities’ Response to Black Lives Matter report assessed the movement from the perspective of university leaders, staff, students and alumni. The paper draws on interviews with 21 individuals from across 11 higher education institutions as well as 4 individuals who work for higher education organisations. In addition to this, they conducted a survey between 16th September and 5th October 2020, open to anyone who has or had a relationship with a UK higher education institution. In total, 79 responses were collected, with respondents ranging from university leadership team members to current students and alumni.
The report ultimately provides 31 recommendations for ‘best practice on how to better support Black lives’ within higher education institutions from ‘recognising that racism exists within both the University and students’ union structure’ to ‘building anti-racism work into all strategies and plans – long term and short term’. The recommendations, intended to provide the sector with a checklist, would seem obvious enough actions to take, but the report presents concerning testimonies of institution-wide failings. Most notably, the paper found that only 26 per cent of respondents felt that their university’s response to Black Lives Matter was sufficient or appropriate. Thus, the Halpin report’s recommendations require sector-wide attention to mitigate this low figure.
There is an urgency in the need for anti-racism to be brought to the forefront of universities’ agendas, but often, this sentiment – if not reality, shared by Black students and staff, is rarely adequately reflected in discourse or by higher education institutions themselves. The Halpin report, however, refuses to sit on the fence, simplistically but boldly outlining, ‘Black people are tired of waiting’. Recognising the danger of waiting, waiting to find the right words, waiting to feel comfortable enough to take action – the report, honest on how the COVID-19 pandemic poses an ever greater necessity for higher education institutions to take anti-racism, takes the issue seriously.
The pandemic has exacerbated already present inequalities, most notably reflected by the number of deaths within Black communities and the disproportionate number of Black people in at risk and ‘low paying key-worker roles’. While this global pandemic has ripped through the nation since March 2020, anti-Black racism is a plight which has affected Black people for centuries. The deadly nature of racism must not, and cannot be downplayed. One respondent coined the phrase:
COVID is a pandemic. Well, racism is the biggest pandemic ever’.
This powerful testimony reminds us that anti-Black racism and COVID-19 should not be viewed or treated as two separate scourges, but one which requires an intertwined response. Such a response needs to tackle both the effects of institutional racism and the pandemic, both of which disproportionately target the Black community and Black students. The recognition and recommendation that ‘anti-racism work needs to underpin the institutional COVID-19 response’ is a real strength of the report as it presents the systemic disadvantages the Black community experience, in a contemporary context. Positively, this disallows the erasure of the Black communities struggle (an erasure we see time and time again within popular media) as an issue largely resultant of past systems and processes.
An area of the report which is of particular interest to me, is the address of the need to go beyond the Race Equality Charter. Introduced in 2014, the Charter was created to address student attainment and the success and progression of minority ethnic staff and students. In my own independent research for my dissertation, I found that the Race Equality Charter only provides an outline through which institutions should work to ‘identify and self-reflect on the institutional and cultural barriers’ affecting ethnic minority staff and students. I found that the Race Equality Charter acts as a convenient smokescreen for universities, as it is a policy solely grounded in institutional self-reflection. How can we entrust the very higher education institutions which benefit from operating in a blind-consciousness, to independently step up for Black lives, especially when discourse shows that there is a sector-wide assumption that equality policies primarily favour Black people? This stance stems from a White privilege wherein the advantages accruing to White students and staff are largely unrecognised and/or downplayed.
As echoed by Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice and Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education (CRRE) at the University of Birmingham and Martin Myers, Assistant Professor in Education at the University of Nottingham, equality policies only superficially address perceptions of racism, as opposed to racism itself. The beauty of the Halpin report is that it too, shuns the status-quo. Instead of following suit of simply recommending higher education institutions become members of the Race Equality Charter, the author goes beyond this – urging institutions not to use the Race Equality Charter as a tick-box exercise, but instead to ‘embrace implementing meaningful change’.
In order to turn away from performance and towards enactment, such a meaningful change should first be reflected in transparency on all things regarding racial inequality within the institution: the awarding gap, the ethnic pay gap and the number of Black professors. It must be noted, The Race Equality Charter is the only one of its kind within higher education, and while imperfect, I do not disregard nor discredit what it has set out to achieve. However, in order to begin enacting the critical change so desperately needed within the sector, it must acknowledge the recommendations of the Halpin report – they only make the Charter stronger. The Race Equality Charter as it stands, is only the beginning, not the end – that duty lies in higher education institutions’ independent ownership of anti-Black racism work.
Halpin’s report succinctly presents solutions to the many challenges universities will face in their journey to becoming adequate allies to their Black students. From ‘setting priorities and taking prompt action’ to ‘mental health services’, the author has laid the groundwork for institutions – naming barriers and explaining how best to overcome them, with their suggested recommendations.
This report is a breath of fresh air, providing hope that higher education institutions will finally fulfil their duty in supporting Black students’ lives as normatively as that of their White peers. By firmly refusing neutrality in their address of higher education institutions shortcomings, the Halpin report has started a much needed, honest, policy-driven conversation regarding Black Lives Matter. The recommendations within are a powerful resource for higher education institutions and all those within to begin supporting their Black students and staff – for the long run. Black Lives Matter is not a trend; higher education institutions acknowledging and upholding the movement, is a very basic civic duty. Until all groups within university cohorts are appropriately supported and protected – the entire institution has failed.