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The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report and disaggregating BAME in higher education

  • 26 April 2021
  • By Randall Whittaker

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Randall Whittaker, Pro-Vice Chancellor Academic and Leeds Arts University. You can find Randall on Twitter @RandalWhittaker.

On Wednesday 21 April HEPI hosted the third webinar in a series with Advance HE on ‘How do we ensure equality in higher education in a pandemic?’. You can watch the recording here.

Over the years there have been numerous calls for action to abandon the divisive BAME term which have predictably not been heeded. I have previously argued that the homogenous term BAME is not only lazy but also problematic. Who exactly are you referring to when you use it? BAME has no nuance and the way it is being used impacts the lives of people of colour negatively; ‘BAME’ is being use to misrepresent the experience of Black and brown people and to mask inaction.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report published at the end of March this year, recommends that the term should be disaggregated. Although I support this recommendation it is concerning that in other parts of the report the Commission use disaggregation to explain differential outcomes between Black communities:

We have found that some ethnic minorities have been able to ‘participate’ better than others. We were impressed by the ‘immigrant optimism’ of some of the new African communities. They are among the new high achievers in our education system. As their Caribbean peers sit in the same classrooms, it is difficult to blame racism in education for the latter’s underachievement.

This approach is dangerous as it reinforces white superiority with roots firmly embedded in imperialism. It is also difficult not to draw comparison to the racial classifications in South Africa which were the basis of apartheid laws. The combination of arbitrary racial classification and the colonial histories of the country resulted in an ideological gulf between Black and Coloured people. This divide and rule approach validated the actions of the white supremacist as Coloured people stopped identifying as Black. The historian Patric Tariq Mellet calls this the ‘de-Africanization’ of Coloured people. White was superior, Asian less superior than White but more so than Coloured. Coloured were less superior than Asian but more superior than Native. Natives had no superiority. No report that seeks to address disparities should seek to divide and turn communities who have suffered racial injustice against each other. This report does not acknowledge how much harder people of colour have to work to avail of the same opportunities as white British.

In a recent piece for HEPI Professor Stokes writes:

First, the decolonising the curriculum movement derives its moral impetus by alleging that UK universities are endemically racist. Fortunately, the evidence paints a much brighter picture. Among UK higher education staff, the difference in proportions between white professors (11.2%) and BAME professors (9.7%) is small, at 1.5 percentage points.

It is exhausting for people of colour to continually have to debate white men about what racism is. Representing the figures in the manner above hides the appalling lack of representation within our universities. Actions like these makes those who suffer at the hands of injustice furious but also overwhelmed and powerless. Weaponising numbers by choosing not to disaggregate BAME data erases the experience of people of colour, we become invisible just as our voices and stories have been erased from history as a result of imperial strategy.

The HESA staff data 2019/20 indicate that 140 academic staff at professorial level identified as black, equating to 0.7% out of a total of more than 21,000 professors. 85% identified as white, 1,360 as Asian, and more than 2,000 as unidentified or from other ethnic backgrounds.

The data also show that only 75 people on university governing bodies identify as black, out of 3,600 governors in England, Wales and Scotland, including staff and non-staff.

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report also fails to address the lack of representation.

The representation picture in UK universities has never been bright and it is not getting brighter, yes, it is improving but it is still lamentable. People of colour are dehumanised and demonised by the colour of our skin and the unwillingness and the lack of collective accountability to acknowledge this lack of representation in this report dangerous. This lack or representation is evidence that institutional racism in thriving in the UK.

For people of colour the visible changes addressing race equality are small. There is a lack of leadership, commitment, experience and accountability to make the significant structural changes required for universities to become anti-racist. People of colour are not around the decision-making table when anti-racist policies are drafted, approved and where its impact is monitored. White people with no experience of racism making decisions about how to become anti-racist will not achieve this. Anti-racism is not policy, a working group, reports or recommendations – it is, a set of values and principles against which to measure all work.

In the recent HEPI piece, Professor Stokes continues:

Universities must remain at the forefront of defending equality of opportunity, challenging discrimination and widening access to historically disadvantaged groups. However, that noble quest must take as its lodestar the key values of evidence, reason and academic freedom. In so far as decolonising the curriculum is another idea, competing in the academic discourse for academics’ support and adherence, it is to be welcomed as part of a vibrant debate.

Conversations about representation are difficult to have and thus easy for people without lived experience to dismiss. Overt racism and micro-aggression is an everyday occurrence for Black people we are expected to be silent while our experiences are being denied. It is not divisive to talk about lack of representation or racial injustice. Not talking about, derailing or shutting down discussions about representation only preserves the status quo providing the ideal environment for the toxic racism to thrive.

A few months on from the brutal murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protest the momentum, promises and commitments to make meaningful changes to improve racial injustice have been all but lost. The hypocritical, superficial and poorly constructed reports, statements, recommendations and ill-considered action plans issued by universities and sector bodies over this period are used to explain away inaction once again.

Racial injustice has been deeply embedded in society and our universities.  There was already a lack of appetite to make meaningful progress towards achieving improved social justice before the many recent reports on tackling or addressing racism, just like similar reports in the past in education, the NHS, police and prisons. Let’s stop calling reports on tackling racism a significant step forward or a catalyst for change. This approach is tokenistic and meaningless: people seeking equitable and socially just opportunities have heard it all before because our life experiences have been tinted with injustice. Demand action and accountability instead. The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report only confirms how much work remains.


  1. Rohit Warikoo FCMI says:

    Agree with your article and I think micro aggressions needs to be tackled at all levels .

  2. John Bird says:

    Excellent piece. The situation in the UK is little changed since the 1990’s (my own research in mid 1990’s amongst others). There are still few black staff; fewer in positions of power; large gaps in attainment for black students compared with their white peers; problems when these students enter the labour market…….and then we have universities congratulating themselves for a bit of decolonisation, some unconscious bias training, a modicum of allyship, and the immanent end of white supremacy and institutional racism. Well, that was the alleged aim in 1995 and we are still, in effect, no further on!

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