In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protests spread around the world to draw attention to racial discrimination and the failure of many societies to address it. It was not long before companies, organisations and other institutions were in the spotlight, with the role that they play in perpetuating structural inequality brought into sharp focus. The higher education sector was no exception. When many universities did respond with statements or with posting the “black square”, there was often a backlash online, with critics saying that these statements did not go far enough, and that real action was missing. Since then, universities have been under increased social, political and regulatory pressure to deal with these inequalities. The higher education institutions in the UK who are making genuine progress have recognised that the only way to tackle these entrenched structural inequalities is to make it a strategic priority for the institution.
Racial Inequalities for Staff and Students
There are racial inequalities for students in higher education across the student lifecycle. Students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are less likely to be awarded a 1st or 2:1 grade than white students. There is currently a 13% gap for BAME students as a whole and the biggest gap is between white students and black students (22%). BAME students have higher non-continuation rates; the black student dropout rate is almost 1.5 times higher the rate of white students. BAME students have worse graduate outcomes than white students; there is 9% gap between white students in full time employment after graduating (62% gap) and Black students (53% gap) . And BAME students are less likely to progress to further study than white students; there is a 10% increase in the percentage of white undergraduates pursuing postgraduate research study but a 50% decrease in progression for black students.
There are also racial disparities in the student experience. A quarter of students from an ethnic minority background reported receiving racial harassment since starting their course. When consulted, BAME students highlight factors that exacerbate these inequalities, including, a Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy, lack of culturally competent support services, and inadequate reporting mechanisms and remedies for tackling racism.
University staff from minoritised backgrounds frequently experience racial stereotyping and microaggressions, and are poorly represented throughout the academy, particularly in senior positions. In 2016-17 only 7.5% of professors were BAME men, and 2.1% BAME women. There are also inequalities within the overall ‘BAME’ category; for example, less than 1% of professors are black. The “Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged” report by the EHRC highlighted several areas where staff of colour experience racism in a higher education context. Staff in the report described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race and more than a quarter of staff consulted said they experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes. The report found that 3 in 20 staff said racial harassment had caused them to leave their jobs.
The Impetus for Change and Key Questions
Racial inequalities have remained stubborn for a long time but demands for change have increased in recent years. Universities in the UK have had regulatory and legal requirements to tackle racial inequalities for some time. The Race Relations Amendment Act was introduced in 2000 and from 2002, higher education providers have been required to develop race equality policies and action plans. The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination based on protected characteristics (including race) and the 2011 Public Sector Equality Duty requires institutions to demonstrate compliance. Despite this, many of the inequalities highlighted above have persisted.
More recently, issues of race and racism have been brought to the fore by student activists and campaigns. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign (originating in the University of Cape Town in South Africa) re-introduced the concept of “decolonising” into the mainstream of higher education discourse. Following on from this, numerous reports have given the sector clear steps on tackling racial harassment in higher education. In relation to racial disparities in attainment, reports including #ClosingTheGap , a collaboration between Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) highlighted issues of the BAME attainment gap and gave clear recommendations for action. Alongside this, the regulator for higher education in England, the Office for Students, has introduced regulation requiring universities to commit to closing BAME attainment gaps for students as part of their Access and Participation Plans. More broadly, Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter Mark requires universities to set out clear action plans for tackling their racial inequalities for both students and staff. In late 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published “Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged”, outlining key recommendations for the sector to tackle racial harassment. UUK responded in November 2020 with the “Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education” report, which sets out further recommendations, including engaging directly with staff with lived experience of racial harassment, developing and introducing reporting systems for racial harassment and reviewing current policies and procedures to develop institution-wide strategies.
The global Black Lives Matter movement has brought sharper focus to these issues, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Many testimonials were published online recounted experiences of racism in universities and many institutions responded by issuing statements stating their commitment to tackle racial inequalities. This social, political and regulatory context presents means that allowing these inequalities to persist is now out of the question but this confronts universities with some challenging questions. What does success look like and how do we measure it? Where is the balance between targeted activity and support for all? How do we appropriately engage those who experience racism in our universities without requiring them to do all the work to fix the problems? What are the right accountability and governance structures needed to drive this work?
How do we appropriately engage those who experience racism in our universities without requiring them to do all the work to fix the problems?
Coughlan, S. (2021, January 19). Only 1% of UK university professors are black. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/education-55723120
Equality and Human Rights Commission. (2019, October). Tackling racial harassment: Universities challenged. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/tackling-racial-harassment-universities-challenged.pdf
Otobo, O. (2020, November). UK Universities’ Response to Black Lives Matter. Halpin. https://halpinpartnership.com/storage/app/media/halpin-report-uk-universities-response-to-black-lives-matter.pdf
Petrie, K., & N, K. (2017, July 19). On course for success? Student retention at university. Social Market Foundation. https://www.smf.co.uk/publications/course-success-student-retention-university/
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Universities UK. (2020, November). Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2020/tackling-racial-harassment-in-higher-education.pdf
Universities UK & National Union of Students. (2019, May). Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Student Attainment at UK Universities: #ClosingTheGap. Universities UK. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf
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