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Benchmarking is vital to tackling racism in HE

Professor David Mba, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research, Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise), UAL

At the Black Leadership Group’s annual conference on 21 March, Make the Path by Walking It, Professor David Mba will lead a discussion on the Ethnic Representation Index: A new annual appraisal of the progress made by universities in England to become Anti-racist institutions. Here, Prof Mba makes the case for benchmarking performance on anti-racism.

The need to work towards an anti-racist society for the benefit of everybody is something I believe in passionately.

We must together raise awareness so that we can collectively address these all-too-common inequities, and most importantly we need to act effectively to eradicate them now.

I work in Higher Education and, in common with other sectors, it has been difficult to quantify people’s learning about anti-racism. This is, in part, because we are all unique and on our own journey with this. For individuals and for organisations, we are on different trajectories in our knowledge and understanding of what anti-racism means.

This, in my opinion, is why there is a critical need for benchmarking.

At the BLG annual conference on 21 March, I will present on progress made with the Ethnic Representation Index to benchmark universities in England.

Our research, which underpins the argument for an Index, showcases data from every English university. The findings challenge the lack of action to back up public commitments to diversity, and also the absence of any way of monitoring overall progress. At conference, I’m very much looking forward to discussing the steps we must now take to act on the findings of our research and to implement the Index nationwide.

What is the Ethnic Representation Index?

The Index gives a comprehensive perspective on the different aspects of becoming an anti-racist institution. The metrics cover student experience, academic inclusion and institutional governance.

It recognises that increasing the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students entering our universities is essential, but it’s not enough. Students of all backgrounds must equally:

  • feel a sense of belonging
  • thrive in their academic work
  • be protected from abuse and discrimination

A report published in 2020 by Universities UK, an industry body representing the sector, acknowledged that British universities perpetuate ‘institutional racism’. Complaints about racism on campus had been downplayed or ignored. And Black, Asian and minority ethnic (B.A.M.E.) representation among staff and senior leaders did not reflect the student body.

Universities have pledged to do more to root out racism but, without a benchmark via a consistent methodology or agreed metrics, it is impossible to measure the progress they are making.

Driving change

The findings of our research on progress, in the absence of such a benchmarking system, did not make for easy reading. Key findings from our report included:

  • Average B.A.M.E student representation (32%) does not match B.A.M.E representation among academics (17%) or professors (10%).
  • For Black students (9.5% of students) the problem is worse, with Black academics (2.7%) and professors (0.7%) falling short of the student average.
  • Black students, in particular, face significant entry barriers, with 78% of universities, analysed as part of this report, less likely to make Black students an offer to study when they have the same entry profile as other applicants.

On anti-racism, our HE institutions need to perform better. I believe a system of measuring performance, and published league tables, will deliver improvements. The Ethnic Representation Index would do this, in my view, by helping HE institutions to measure progress against institutional and structural racism, build consensus about a methodology and invite constructive input.

The ERI can serve not as a record of our common failure, but of our common endeavour and in doing so, drive positive change.

By Professor David Mba, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of the Arts London (UAL). 

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