Advancing racial equality in higher education

Advancing racial equality in higher education


By Amatey Doku

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests across the world, bringing to the fore the numerous ways structural racial inequalities persist in Western countries. Testimonials and mounting data have shone a light on these inequalities across many aspects of life.

The UK higher education sector is not immune to these inequalities. Significant and well documented racial disparities persist: Black students face a 26 per cent attainment gap when compared with their white counterparts; continuation and progression rates have similar gaps; there are very few Black professors or senior leaders (and few of them are women); and structures for reporting racial harassment are often underdeveloped.

Recently I chaired a discussion on what the Black Lives Matter movement means for the higher education sector as part of the Wonkhe@Home series. I was joined by Hillary Gyebi-Ababio (National Union of Students), Paulette Williams (UCL), Jason Arday (Durham), Randall Whitakker (Leeds Arts) and Marilyn Holness (Roehampton). The panellists reflected on inequality in UK higher education and suggested solutions for how the sector can eradicate these inequalities.

Tackling racial disparities requires an institution-wide approach

There is broad agreement across higher education on a racially equitable vision for higher education: staff and the broader academy are diverse; incidents of racism are rare and dealt with quickly; disparities in outcomes are eliminated; and Black students and staff feel they truly belong at their university.

However, despite a proliferation of initiatives, many universities have struggled to realise that vision. Panellists shared how institutions would benefit from a far more holistic approach rather than disjointed initiatives. For the best chance of success, a strategy to tackle these inequalities should be centrally coordinated, centre on the experiences of Black students and staff, source appropriate expertise, and be resourced sufficiently.

Lived experience is complex so co-design must inform decisions

Truly understanding the complexity of staff and students’ lived experiences is hard. Simplistic use of the term “BAME” (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) minimises different experiences that need to be disaggregated. For example, the type of discrimination faced by an Asian student will differ from that of a Black student. Interventions to support those individuals must take this into account.

Incidents of overt racism and continued microaggressions will be uncovered by looking behind the numbers to understand the lived experiences of those affected. Panellists spoke of the need for white allies to be equipped with the knowledge to challenge these behaviours when they arise.

Co-design is critical to ensure that affected groups’ experiences inform institutional decision making. Historically these groups often have not been reached out to by the institutions’ societies. Universities must work with groups like student unions, cultural clubs, societies or BAME staff networks to ensure that students and staff are consulted and that solutions are co-designed.

Leadership is key to eradicating racial inequality

Tackling discrimination and bias requires action at all levels in universities but senior staff must take the lead.

Leaders must signal that tackling racial inequality is a priority throughout the institution and acknowledge that it requires a strategic approach. If and where understanding of these issues is lacking, university leaders must upskill themselves and others, sourcing that expertise externally if necessary.

Unconscious bias training on its own is not enough – these educative conversations require experienced facilitators to navigate complex issues.

And leadership teams must become more diverse. This includes engaging with executive search firms to ensure that long and short lists can diversify the pipeline for senior posts.

The Closing the Gap report published last year by the National Union of Students and Universities UK included several recommendations. This demonstrates the UK higher education sector’s intention to make progress.

There is much work to do, but the desire for change is clearly there, brought sharply into focus by recent events. If the sector seizes the initiative, it can lead the way in demonstrating how racial inequalities across broader society can be eradicated.

A video of the event is online at Wonkhe.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help your university leaders develop a strategy to tackle racial inequality.

Written by Amatey Doku during his time as a Consultant at Nous.