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Challenges that BAME student representatives encounter when trying to challenge racism

  • 1 March 2021
  • By Ann Hanna

This blog was kindly contributed by Ann Hanna, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate currently working with humanitarian organisations that aim to reduce inequalities worldwide.

COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have reminded us of the vast inequalities that exist as a result of race and ethnicity, including in higher education. The majority of UK universities responded publicly to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, but only a few published an action plan that specified how they would work to tackle institutional racism within their own institutions.

Initiatives like Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter work to reduce these inequalities, and there are many individuals that are working diligently to improve the culture in higher education. Nevertheless, in order for change to take place on an institution-wide level, attitudes must begin to shift.

Making real change in organisations that Universities UK (UUK) describe as ‘perpetuating institutional racism’ can feel like swimming against the tide. I recently interviewed three student representatives: two are former/current Student Union (SU) officers of colour and one is a student representative of colour. There were two recurring themes: the culture within higher education settings does not allow for enough room to tackle racism successfully; and there is often not enough support. The tide needs to change direction and the swimmer cannot be left to swim alone.

  1. Changing the tide: education and accountability

One of the biggest issues that student union Presidents encounter when trying to tackle racism in higher education is that some people who they come into contact with are not aware it is an issue, or do not see it as a priority. There can be minimal support on offer. There are many students who enter higher education having never discussed issues of race. Understanding how to talk about race is very much a learning curve, and one that could be supported by universities. Shân Wareing has outlined this on the HEPI website before. There are also members of staff who have had few frank discussions about race, including members of staff in some student unions, so staff and students should be actively encouraged to attend anti-racism training.

This training can encompass several things, including bystander intervention training. There are universities which have committed to providing all students and staff with the opportunity to attend anti-racism training. For instance, the University of Cambridge ran an anti-racism in pedagogy workshop as part of their Spring 2019 University Diversity Fund. The University of Sheffield also ran Race equality awareness training in September 2019. In some universities, this work is being done by student representatives with support from some faculties.

Students and staff that are perpetrators of racist incidents are not always held to account. Equality and Human Rights Commission data suggest that, in the first half of the 2018/19 academic year, two-thirds of students who had experienced racial harassment did not report this to their university. Often, students (and members of staff) feel there will be no clear outcome. This can be due to reporting systems that are not sufficiently robust. When perpetrators of these incidents are not held to account, this makes it extremely difficult to challenge racism and the culture that allows it within higher education institutions.

Students should have a number of means by which they can report racist incidents. Students and staff should have the opportunity to remain anonymous throughout the process of reporting incidents. A good example of a robust reporting system is the ‘Tell Us’ reporting tool at Abertay University. The ‘Tell Us’ tool is available on a platform that is independent of the university’s corporate website and clearly assures students that they can report anonymously. Between September 2019 and August 2020, 75 per cent of reports were anonymous. This website ensures students and staff that they will get support and outlines a number of different ways that they could go about doing so.

The Race Equality Charter (REC) is a good start for acknowledging institutional problems. Adopting the REC is a significant step towards committing to real change within higher education settings. Upon joining, higher education institutions should submit an application for an award in three years. The Bronze Award ‘acknowledges commitment and preparation to act.’ There are currently only 75 REC members, holding 17 awards between them. There is still a way to go. A requirement in order to earn the award is surveying staff and students – in doing this, and allowing students a say in how exactly a university will address these issues, students will be able to hold the higher education institution accountable against the commitments that it has made to them within this framework.

Higher education institutions should also make a concerted effort to engage BAME members of staff and students in their self-examination as part of their commitment to racial equality, particularly within the frameworks of the REC. To do this, higher education institutions should work closely with student union officers and other student representatives committed to this level of engagement. For instance, Durham SU’s President Seun Twins has recently launched the ‘Culture Commission’ to ‘deconstruct toxicity at Durham’ – this is an example of genuine engagement with students and projects like this should be supported by higher education institutions.

2. Supporting the swimmers

Work to tackle racial inequalities in higher education is largely done by BAME students, and staff – a point made clearly by Amatey Doku in HEPI’s essay collection on racial inequalities. In the interviews I conducted, it was clear that much of this work does not receive sufficient support. BAME students and staff can be disadvantaged by needing to spend a significant amount of time and energy solving institutional problems, on top of pre-existing study and work pressures. In addition, when these members of staff are about to leave their institutions, there is no clear way to embed the necessary changes into the system.

BAME students and staff committing to creating cultural change should be officially recognised. Official recognition can include award schemes similar to the ‘Outstanding Student Contribution to Education Award’ at the University of Cambridge, which recognises students for voluntary participation. Where possible – and especially when plans require significant amounts of students’ time, effort and expertise – staff and students should be remunerated for their efforts.

The possibility of electing full-time anti-racist or BME sabbatical officers in student unions, so that this work is embedded should be seriously considered, particularly in universities where BAME staff representation is weak. Such consistent work and such a level of support is crucial to inducing a real culture shift.

Thank you to Oluwaseun Twins (Durham University SU President 2020-2021), Osaro Otobo (formerly Hull University SU president, and author of the Halpin report ‘UK Universities response to Black Lives Matter’), and Dan Takyi (President of Durham Pepople of Colour Assocation 2020-2021) for sharing their time with me for this blog.

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