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Reducing racial inequality in higher education

The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) is today (19 Sept) publishing a collection of essays by senior higher education figures entitled “The white elephant in the room: ideas for reducing racial inequality in higher education“.

The authors are: Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, University of London; Professor Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice, University of Birmingham and author of White Privilege: the myth of a post racial society; Professor Shân Wareing, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University; Srabrani Sen OBE, founder and CEO of Full Colour; Amatey Doky, former Vice President of Higher Education at the National Union of Students; and Professor Margo Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations, including:

  • Making research grants to universities conditional on their participation in the Race Equality Charter;
  • Funding new PhD places for black and ethnic minority (BME) candidates; and
  • Recognising and rewarding informal work by BME staff, such as mentoring BME students.

Hugo Dale-Rivas, Policy Officer at HEPI, who edited the collection, said:

‘Racial inequality is in danger of being an accepted fact in higher education. It is too easy for people to shrug and treat it like someone else’s problem.

‘The report shows many things we need to do. For instance, all universities – not just a third as now – should apply for awards with the Race Equality Charter.

‘Change needs to come from all areas, from vice-chancellors and senior management but also from academic departments and to affect everything a university does, right down to the interactions between colleagues and the way we talk about race.’

In the Foreword to the collection, Baroness Amos, writes:

‘Universities are as much about delivering equality as they are about excellent scholarship and knowledge transfer. They are places where opportunity and aspiration come together. There are no easy routes to success. As university leaders we have a responsibility to make change happen and it needs to start now.’

Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice, University of Birmingham said:

‘Work on gender is seen as worthwhile and contributing to an equalities agenda. Race, on the other hand has always been seen as a secondary priority. If higher education is serious about social justice, then race equality must be seen as a priority – linking the Race Equality Charter to research funding would be a good start.’

Professor Shân Wareing, in her chapter said:

‘In a room of people talking about race, there will be people confused about which words are okay and which are not. And there will be people in the room who will not join in the conversation, for fear of appearing racist, of being called racist, and perhaps of finding out when it comes down to it, they are racist.’

Amatey Doku, former Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students, said:

‘Universities are under more pressure than ever to address the 14% attainment gap between BME and white students. Some universities are responding positively, but end up putting a disproportionate burden on BME staff and students. Ultimately it is the institutions themselves that need to fix the problem.”

Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, said:

‘I welcome this report. The ideas contained in it should help to address one of the major concerns for equality and fairness in higher education today.

‘There is a need for straight conversations about the stubborn attainment gaps between some ethnic groups, which are holding some students back from achieving their full potential. It is a great injustice that black students should be so much less likely than their white peers to complete their courses, gain the top marks and secure graduate employment.

‘The Office for Students is agreeing plans and targets with all higher education providers to reduce and ultimately eliminate the gap in degree outcomes between white and black students. We have set an ambitious goal to remove the gap that cannot be explained by subject or entry qualifications within the next five years. This is a realistic goal if universities and other higher education providers take the urgent action that is needed to understand and address the barriers to success.’

Margot Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society, concludes:

‘A third of black and minority ethnic historians have faced discrimination or abuse – twice as many as for white historians. That tends to shock white historians, but it has never surprised BME historians with whom that I’ve shared our findings.’

Responding to a the reportwhich highlights a number of barriers to achieving race equality in universities, the University and College Union (UCU) said, Universities must do more to ensure fair access and progression for black and minority ethnic (BME) staff and students.

Calling for a number of actions including linking research funding to the Race Equality Charter, and more recognition for the informal mentoring and advocacy work undertaken by BME staff, UCU said the new report echoed issues identified in the union’s own research, which found that nine in ten (90%) BME staff in colleges and universities report having faced barriers to promotion, and many black staff in universities face a culture of bullying and stereotyping.

The union said that there was no room for complacency when it came to tackling racial inequality in universities. It called for all universities to commit to the Race Equality Charter and work with trade unions to address the concerns of BME staff and students.

UCU also called for greater commitments to ensuring BME students can get a foot on the ladder of academia, after a recent freedom of information request revealed that just 1.2% of PhD places funded by UK Innovation and Research in the last 3 years went to black or black mixed students.

UCU general secretary, Jo Grady, said:

‘This new report is a timely reminder that we still have a long way to go when it comes to achieving equality for BME staff and students in our universities. Our own research has shown that far too many BME staff in universities still face significant barriers to promotion as well as an insidious culture of bullying and stereotyping.

‘There is no room for complacency when it comes to tackling these persistent barriers to access and progression. Universities need to do much more, including ensuring that BME students from all backgrounds can get a foot on the ladder in academia.

‘A good start would be for all institutions to commit to the Race Equality Charter and engage fully with trade unions to address the concerns of BME staff and students.’

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