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It's time for universities to make race equality a priority

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Many BAME staff in higher education have expressed anger, frustration and disbelief at their lack of representation in senior roles. Not even 1% of UK professors are black and across the sector there is a 16% pay gap between BAME and white staff working in senior management for academic and professional services. Moreover, black students are more likely to drop out, and make up the lowest proportion of students graduating with a first or upper second class degree.

The problem lies in the fact that, despite university leaders’ rhetoric, there is a complacency within the sector which has led to a slow pace of change. There is a striking divergence between higher education positioning itself as inclusive and internationalist, and the limited progress on racial equality domestically. We need to admit that the problem is real.

Most universities, in line with other sectors, have action plans and training programmes in place, but the figures show that whatever it is we are doing – or think we are doing – is not working. Culture change is hard and takes time, but we cannot afford to carry on letting down future generations of BAME students, academics and staff. Achieving race equality is not an add-on. It must be a key part of our agenda going forward.

Leaders in higher education today are busy navigating their way through a complex set of policy changes. We are dealing with the transition to the new Office for Students; the impact of leaving the EU on student recruitment, staff retention, collaboration and research; new measures to assess teaching quality; a framework to score knowledge transfer and a review of HE funding; and the impact of government anti-terrorism legislation.

But amid the backdrop of these changes, where does the challenge of addressing BAME representation sit? What priority does it have? Is racial equality in universities seen as a fundamental business, ethical and moral necessity – or just as a nice-to-have? For me it has to be part of the core of what we do.

In Britain we find it hard to talk about race and the impact that racism has on all of us. That’s because the conversation often immediately leaps into the territory of whether individuals are racist – and it degenerates from there. Socially and institutionally we find it hard to acknowledge the historical legacy and the insidious, invidious impact of racism because it quickly descends into a blame game.

The term “decolonising knowledge” has provoked intellectual interest and curiosity as well as outrage. That’s partly because we find it uncomfortable to look deep into our national psyche and identity, questioning versions of our history. But the deep-seated and structural nature of race inequality needs to be tackled at a societal, institutional as well as individual level. It’s about culture and relationships as well as about policy and process. The important thing is to have the debate, and though we won’t all agree, I see that as a good thing.

There are deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes which need to be overcome. University leaders need to acknowledge that we are not doing enough. The UK has some of the best universities in the world – but what is the point of that if we are not offering real equality of opportunity?

 

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