‘Racist’ views in university

This post was prompted by an incident that occurred yesterday during a course that I was attending. However, I am really struggling to know where to start or write something that makes sense because I still get shocked and angry when staff display obvious racially insensitive attitudes.

My own research and that of others highlights that there is racial prejudice in UK universities but that it tends to be indirect and subtle so when someone says something much more obvious it is noticeable. So I guess I should explain the incident and go from there.

At one point in the course we were discussing the idea of dealing with things quickly (as a manager) before they get out of hand. One example used to illustrate this was the ‘Broken Windows Theory’. I stated that I felt this was a poor example as the theory itself was contested and controversial and had most notably been used to inform policing practice in New York City. I mentioned that such policies risked discriminating against certain groups such as young, Black men and that maybe a less controversial example should have been used.

One of the other participants felt that it was perfectly OK to state that it was precisely because this group were committing crime that meant they were targeted; showing a complete lack of understanding of structural inequality. Now to a certain extent I can forgive ignorance but it just felt like a completely unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to my comment that served no purpose.

Had we been discussing race or policing or any other related matter then I would have happily had the debate. But this was a management course. I had simply objected to an example used on the grounds that it could be seen as insensitive and another member of staff felt the need to object and make what I felt was a comment that showed at best ignorance and at worst a racist attitude. Although of course, it was not blatantly racist enough to be able to take the matter further and make a complaint against the staff member. (I would strongly recommend everyone reads Pettigrew and Meertens’ 1995 paper on ‘Subtle and blatant prejudice in Western Europe’, European journal of social psychology, 25 (1) pp. 57-75)

I guess it is just another daily example of how whenever anyone tries to call out structural inequality related to race there is always plenty of white people who feel the need to object. It is just a shame that it happened in my own university but just goes to illustrate how much further we have to go to get real equality and of course it only hardens my resolve to continue that fight!

Good practice in reducing the BME attainment gap

Less than half of those universities who were involved in the pilot of the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter Mark were successful in getting the bronze award. Working at one of the institutions that did not make the cut (this time at least), I think it is useful to look at what else can be done to improve the situation.

I have chosen two cases here that I think provide some insight; Kingston University who achieved the award and the University of Derby who did not apply but have a very interesting initiative about BME attainment.

Having seen the institutional commitment at Kingston it is easy to see why they got the charter mark, you can see a great deal of Kingston’s data and strategies here. From the Vice Chancellor down, there is a high level of awareness of the issue and a range of departmental initiatives trying to address the attainment gap. What is particularly interesting to note is:

  • Kingston have an institutional KPI to reduce the attainment gap
  • They have a specific equality, diversity and inclusion unit
  • They have a broad-ranging and high profile EDI strategy aimed at embedding EDI into everything they do (which feels genuine rather than a ‘lip-service’ document).
  • They do a lot of data analysis on the issue and in particular look at intersectionality as well as individual demographic markers.
  • They are ambitious about their EDI work

When you look at both the current work that Kingston do and the scale of their ambition you can not fail to see how far behind most universities are.

Derby is an interesting case for two reasons. The first is that they have seen the BME attainment gap fall from 24% to 14% in three years and it is likely to continue falling to around 12% in the latest reporting year. Given the current state of play in the sector that is impressive especially if that reduction continues. Whilst they themselves might admit identifying the exact cause is tricky, there is one element that has contributed and is worth a mention; Practical Recipes for Student Success https://uodpress.wordpress.com/

Derby’s approach has been to try to raise attainment for all with the aim of reducing the attainment gap. As you will note, if you browse the site, there are a range of different elements that they are encouraging. Their findings have been that there is no single solution and that a wide range of (predominately) small changes can make the difference; a bit like the Kaizen idea or the notion of ‘marginal gains’ employed by British Cycling.

What is also interesting in both institutions approaches to EDI is that they are open (Kingston publish their data and strategies on their website, Derby’s resources are open and free to use and re-purpose) and very keen on sharing their practice. Which, for even the most cynical of manager, suggests that there is plenty of mileage for reputational enhancement through a strong commitment to EDI in universities even if you are skeptical about EDI.

OU ‘First in Family’ seminar

I am a real fan of one day or half day seminars on interesting topics, especially ones that are free! Add in the additional draw of an academic who I have widely referenced as one of the speakers and I’m in! So it was that I arrived in Milton Keynes for the OU’s First in Family seminar.

It was worth the visit before we even started when I got the chance to speak to said academic, Jacqueline Stevenson. I talked about my EdD research and she suggested she would be a good person to be external examiner, result! It was also great to see a big contingent from the University of Bedfordshire and I now have another avenue for recruiting students for my research.

  1. Dr O’Shea – FiF learners and HE participation

So anyway, less on me and back to the seminar. Our first speaker was Dr Sarah O’Shea, from Wollongong, talking about research on first in family (FiF) students in Australia. Their project focused on the family of students and the support family provided for FiF students. They used a narrative inquiry approach to get at the complex nature of the FiF student experience. They also focused on idea idea of FiF as a equity category (e.g. in the same way as disabled or BME)

Their main findings were:

  • FiF students place a high value on the opportunity to engage in HE
  • A degree is an opportunity to launch themselves and families into a positive trajectory, ie better job prospect & opportunities, better income etc. – ‘discourse of betterment / opportunity.’
  • Altruism – FiF students wanted to come to university to help others, e.g. wanting to become a nurse because of family experiences etc.
  • FiF students had a lot of hesitancies, apprehensions and doubt about their capacities to succeed in HE.
  • FiF students found it a hugely transformational experience.
  • Distorted expectations due to myths about university in the media, movies etc.

Obstacles: Financial was the largest (links to Socio-Economic Status and FiF students) but also family obstacles and academic difficulties.

Who is doing the supporting? Parents were the primary supporters of FiF students followed by partners and then friends.

In summary: Family members are rich source of emotional support. FiF students are cultural change agents within their family – provide alternative perspectives on educational participation.

Website: www.firstinfamily.com.au/index.php

2. Dr Henley – 1st Year Experience and targeted learning programme

The OU had pulled together a very broad, international set of speakers. Our second speaker was from Auckland, Dr Margaret Henley. Margaret’s focus was the first year experience and a specific intervention for students before their first written assignment called a targeted learning programme.

Dr Henley gave us an overview of the suport mechanism at the University of Auckland particularly in relation to FiF students and indigenous students. Their experiences have shown that students need close monitoring and support at the beginning to get them into the right habits for university support. They will often mandate specific courses (the equivalent of our modules) for certain students, have a number of mandatory support workshops and they monitor attendance and achievement. The aim is that new students are not left alone to figure it out for themselves.

One interesting development is that all students (home students included) have to take an academic English assessment. One of the reasons is that many of their students have English as a second language in the home and they often particularly struggle with academic English as opposed to ‘everyday’ English. Students who are identified as having weaker skills in the test are supported with academic writing courses.

In addition to all that close support they have instituted targeted learning support sessions in the faculty of Arts for the student’s first major assignment which has proved very popular. Students were reluctant to speak to their tutors about assignments and as I know only too well, students often don’t take up the offer of getting feedback on draft assignments.

The sessions drew together academics and professional services staff to provide a holistic support to students for their writing. They were held in the library with mentors, librarians, student support staff and academic staff in a one stop shop type approach. The academic staff could support specific aspects of the assignment. The librarians were there to help with referencing, finding sources etc. They had writing support staff to help with structure & academic writing. They were run 7 days before the assignment deadline and it was scheduled into their timetable. The timing was designed to get them to start their assignments earlier than trying to do it at the last minute. It was sold to students with a very strong link to them getting a better mark. The kind of support seems a much better approach than generic writing or library support and was well received by all staff involved with the aim to get closer contact between academics and professional support staff.

3. Sam Broadhead – Studio Practice & FiF

The 3rd speaker was Sam Broadhead from Leeds College of Arts. Her focus was on studio practice in Art & Design. The main challenge they have is in helping students to understand how to make use of the spaces and nature of studio practice. Sam talked about ‘signature pedagogies’ for Art & Design and used Bernsteins’ model of visible and invisible pedagogies to critique the teaching practices in Art & Design. Invisible pedagogies, such as those found in studio practice, reproduce class differences. In other words, they require cultural capital to know how to use the studio spaces. Widening Participation (WP) students are disadvantaged because tutors make too many implicit assumptions about the space and how students can use it. Sam used the phrase ‘The tyranny of freedom’ to describe how WP students might feel.

I thought this was a really interesting idea and I can see how the notion of invisible pedagogies can be used in my practice to support academics in their teaching. I think it will be particularly useful in teaching observations to think about what implicit assumptions is the teacher making about the learning and how students should be reacting to the learning environment.

Sam went on to describe a number of interventions the College had taken. These interventions were largely pre-university related to ‘making students change’ and adapt to the university environment rather than changing the teaching practices of art & design tutors. Although the interventions might be helpful in supporting transition, students have to fit into the culture of art school rather than art school adapting. Sam is concerned that this then just reproduces a deficit model and perception of WP students.

4. Professor Jacqueline Stevenson – Rethinking First in Family

Last but certainly not least was Professor Jacqueline Stevenson who was talking about FiF and looking at community cultural capital as a means to support FIF students and a route to success. Professor Stevenson’s talk was the most theoretical and I will leave the detail to the next section on themes. She largely drew on the work of Tara Yosso notably this paper) to problematise the concept of FiF.

Key Themes from the Seminar

Theme 1: Defining First in Family

A theme that recurred in many presentations and formed the backbone of Professor Stevenson’s was the challenge in actually defining first in family. There has been a shift from ‘first generation’ to ‘first in family’ but what does it mean?

The Australian project defined FiF as:

“no-one in the immediate family of origin including siblings, children, partners of parents having previously attended a higher education institution or completed a degree.”

This seemed to be a common and widely accepted definition. Although the definition seems relatively clear, however, underlying the notion of FiF is that there is a single, homogeneous category of student who can be supported. Once we start to look at exactly who is FiF that idea starts to unravel. Professor Stevenson highlighted the complexities, for example:

  • Refugees – It is estimated that nearly a quarter of adult refugees have a degree from their country of origin. However, these are often not recognised in the UK. So refugees may be classified as FiF even though they themselves or other relatives already have a degree.
  • Likewise, international students with international qualifications and strong family history of HE in their birth country where their qualifications might not be recognised in the UK.
  • Mature learners -around 10% of mature UGs already have another degree.

There is a tendency to see FiF as an ‘at risk’ group and therefore policy and practice tends to be aimed at supporting these students but given the complexity this is problematic. Professor Stevenson highlighted one example where FiF tends to overlap with socio-economic status (SES), i.e. FiF  more likely from lower SES (I would be interested to know if anyone has statistics on this.) She highlighted the assumption that middle class students will be OK even if FiF because of their SES.

Whatever way you look at the issue; defining and supporting FiF students is complex and we should not see FiF students as a single group.

Theme 2: Cultural and social capital

Another clear theme of the seminar was about capital in the form of social, cultural, family, community etc. (Bourdieu was a popular reference point!)

Dr O’Shea raised the contradiction that although family were a crucial support mechanism for FiF students there was a disconnect for students as their families might be struggling to understand the students’ experiences. So the issue of family capital was raised; to what extent does the social capital (or lack thereof) in the family support or hinder FiF students?

Professor Stevenson advances the idea that community cultural wealth can be used to develop approaches to supporting FiF students. She pointed us to Angela Locke’s reflective questions on each of Yosso’s six aspects of community cultural wealth to consider for our own and our institutional practices.

Theme 3: University engagement with families

Having heard evidence of the importance of family support, the question was raised about HEIs inconsistent approach to our students’ families and how we work with them. “Family have been left at the gate, both literally and metaphorically” was one quote from the seminar.

It seems that we engage with family to some extent in outreach work and most notably during the whole application process (mainly through open days) but after the student arrives, then what? Something that institutions should think about.

As an illustration, in the Australian project, most FiF students’ family members had never been on campus. They could not do family interviews on campus because the family member would not come – possibly because it felt like an intimidating, ‘alien’ environment.

So overall a fascinating and useful event.

Belonging in HE: my own experiences

It has taken me nearly three weeks to realise that one of the reasons for resigning from my current job is related to my research area of belonging. I want to use this post to reflect on my own recent experiences of belonging and how this might provide insight for my research.

To set the scene, one of the reasons for leaving my current job is that I did not feel a good fit (an aspect of belonging) in the organisation. For me, ‘fit’ is the group aspect of belonging; the sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself. I find there is also another useful aspect of belonging for which I use the term ‘contact’. This describes the individual relationships with people that help you belong in a certain environment.

So what have I learnt from my own experience of not fitting in. Firstly, a lack of belonging is hard to articulate and often hard to identify as the cause of why you might feel unhappy or uncomfortable in an environment. It took me nearly three weeks to make the connection (and notions of belonging are fore most in my mind) and it required a lot of reflective thinking to understand what was happening. This confirms to me that the story telling approach is the right way to go with the research. Simply asking about belonging or using belonging self-rating scales will not work because of the difficulty in thinking about and articulating belonging. However, in previous interview data I can see aspects of belonging emerge from stories and experiences, although clearly it is a highly interpretive process.

Secondly, it confirms to me the value of breaking down the concept of belonging into component parts, in this case ‘fit’ & ‘contact’. What was evident in my own work experiences is that fit is a more important aspect of belonging for me than contact. Really strong relationships with people can compensate for a lack of fit but a strong fit means contact can be much lower. What will be interesting in the research is to see if that is true for others or as I suspect contact may be more important for some. For example, I could imagine a student who gets through their degree thanks to excellent support from a lecturer and a small group of friends even though they don’t feel a strong fit in the university. ( I realise as I write this that I need to really ‘nail down’ how these two terms are defined in my research and how they are related but different.)

Thirdly, I need to identify indicators of belonging, fit and contact. In exploring why I did not feel a fit with my current organisation I identified shared values, ways of working and shared identity. By shared values I mean is this a place that has an emphasis on the values I think are important; are my values mirrored in the way the organisation works? The reality of how values are enacted or experienced as opposed to how values are espoused is important here. By shared ways of working, I mean are my strengths recognised and can I work in a way best suited to me. By shared identity, I mean do I recognise others like me who share an identity or have an identity which I value. The difficulty here is how to translate my experience to the student experience. To help I will draw from a specific example of a student who was dissatisfied with the academic environment because she expected it to me more welcoming of diverse opinions and more willing to challenge preconceptions. Her own values of diversity were not mirrored in her experiences (shared values), her opinions were not as respected as she had hoped (ways of working?) and she did not see fellow students on her course as having a shared identity. In not fitting in to her course she sought other means to fit in my being active in the Student’s Union were her values, opinions, ways of working and identity were mirrored more closely.

Fourthly, in exploring ‘fit’ in more detail the notion of a mirror seemed important. Fit is like a mirror; when you look at the people in your environment you expect to see some of yourself reflected back. When that does not happen then you don’t fit in. I don’t mean just your physical self (although for some the physical aspect might be important) but more those cognitive and affective aspects of you such as values and opinions.

Fifthly, the impact of belonging on your self. Like one of those fairground mirrors your sense of self can be distorted by your environment. You can start to question your own values and wonder whether you are right or not. Whilst this questioning can be a good thing it can also make you very unhappy or force you into acting in ways you would not normally in order to fit it.

Lots of food for thought but now back to the literature to find my thinking is way off base!

Narrative Research – my own narrative

I have decided to use narrative inquiry as my research methodology for looking in BME students’ sense of belonging in Higher Education. As part of this process Clandinin & Connelly (2000) remind us that our own narrative inevitably come into this kind of research. The first part will focus on why I have chosen narrative inquiry and the second part will focus on why I have chosen to study BME students’ sense of belonging.

“Even our own homely accounts of happenings in our own lives are eventually converted into more or less coherent autobiographies centred round a Self acting more or less purposefully in a social world.” Bruner (1991:18). This quote by Bruner has had me intrigued for about 6 years. In my work with electronic portfolios it really helped me express what I thought was one of the key benefits of e-portfolios. Namely, that they help record and construct our learning narratives. By recording events as close to when they happen, we have a record that we can look back upon so that we can see how we have progressed overtime. I captured this notion in a presentation I gave at the Centre for Recording Achievement conference in 2010 on e-portfolios and diachronic identity. My original research idea had been to build on this until I got interested in the attainment of BME students.

What really interests me about a narrative approach to research is how we construct our identity and our stories from an imperfect memory. We don’t recall events as they actually happened but through the lens of who we are at this point in time. As Bakhtin (1986) notes our self is neither finished nor definitive (the unfinalizable self) and so future stories can always re-interpret older ones.

So how does this relate to belonging and students in HE? Firstly, belonging is about perception. It is in the perception of the individual and therefore how students construct their identity as a student and tell their story of being at university will impact on their perception of belonging. Secondly, our identity is shaped by others. So in other words, the stories that students tell about their experiences of university will reveal aspects of how they place themselves in relation to peers, tutors and the institution. The sense of how they belonging will, in turn, influence the stories that they tell about being at university.

The second part of my own narrative on why I want to research BME students’ belonging through narrative inquiry has a strong personal motivational component and a strong social justice component.

The motivational component relates to my own family. My sister-in-law is from Zimbabwe and of my son’s five cousins; four of them are of mixed ethnicity. The idea that their educational achievement could be hampered just because they are not white is something that strikes me as simply unjust and unfair. Extending that outwards from my own personal circumstances takes me towards the second factor of social justice. If it is unfair for my own family then it is unfair for anyone to be in this situation.

There are lots of social injustices that I see every day in the world around me and I guess like many of us it is not knowing what to do about it that frustrates. At least in the context of my work, this is one injustice that I can do something constructive about. Here’s hoping!

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and other Late Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press

Bruner, J.(1991) ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’, Critical Inquiry 18:1 pp. 1-21.

Clandinin, D. J and Connelly, F. M (2000) Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

By Neil Currant Posted in EdD

Trying to find a Research Question

I am struggling (doesn’t everyone) with the details of my research and my research question. I think I know Why? and How? but not What?

The Why?

Addressing the BME student attainment gap but with a focus on staff and how we teach.

The How?

Qualitative methodology, probably either narrative inquiry or phenomenology or a mix of both!

The What?

This is the struggle. I am really interested in staff attitude to diversity, their diverse classrooms and how they plan for that diversity. One of my working hypotheses is that more experienced staff who are exposed to greater diversity are more able to adapt their teaching. So what are the implications for newer or less experienced lecturers?

So what about?

  • Gather information about teaching experience and level of racial / cultural diversity in their classrooms
  • Ask about how they plan for diversity in their teaching and assessment?
  • Gather examples of ‘stories’ of teaching culturally / racially diverse students.
  • Gather stories about their own life experiences of diversity (being specific about cultural or racial experiences.)
  • Gather information about individual views on cultural / racial diversity at university (I imagine this would be tricky so would need to be phrased around the benefits that culturally diverse groups bring to our teaching.)

I suppose in this there are a number of threads: do prior life experiences or work experiences make a difference in how you plan for and teach diverse student groups? To what extent is diversity planned for in teaching? How do our values impact on teaching? The more I think about it the fuzzier it gets!!!

I really need also to see what is out there of a similar nature in the literature, so if anyone knows of any papers they can direct me to that would be great.

Is belonging important for retention and success in HE?

In many higher education systems around the world, the rate of degree completion has been a pressing concern. In the US in particular, completion rates are low and a wide range of models have been developed to help explain the issue and seek to remedy it. Two of the most widely adopted of these models in the UK are Tinto’s (1993) integration model and the model of student engagement (e.g. Kuh et.al. 2005). These models attempt to explain factors that impact on students persistence and ultimately success in higher education. However, these models attempt to explain the impact for students in general and it is unclear to what extent they are applicable to different groups of students; in particular non-traditional students.

In the UK, we know that black and minority ethnic (BME) students are less likely to complete their degree and are less likely to get a first or a 2.1 degree classification than white students.  Despite the adoption of student engagement and integration models these results have persisted and have been fairly consistent for over a decade (e.g. ECU 2012). Recent research in the UK as part of the  ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme’ identified sense of belonging alongside student engagement as a important factor in retention and success (Thomas 2012). Sense of belonging as it pertains to student success is an under-researched area of the literature (Hausmann, Schofield & Woods 2007). Hurtado & Carter (1997) argue that understanding minority students’ sense of belonging is key to understanding their experiences at university.

My concern here is that sense of belonging could be particularly important for black students in predominately white institutions (PWIs).  Harper (2009) describes the concept of ‘onlyness’ to capture the experiences of many black students at institutions where they may be the only person from their ethnic group in their class. Therefore, the current models which we use to understand student retention and success may therefore not be sufficient in understanding the experiences of black students without a consideration of belonging and thus may not be entirely helpful in addressing the completion and attainment gaps for black students in UK higher education.


ECU (2012) Equality in Higher Education: Statistical report. Equality Challenge Unit: London

Harper, S.R. (2009) ‘Niggers no more: A critical race counter-narrative on black male student achievement at predominantly white colleges and universities.’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 22 (6), pp. 697-712.

Hausmann, L.R.M., Schofield, J.W. & Woods, R.L. (2007) ‘Sense of Belonging as a Predictor of Intentions to Persist Among African American and White First-Year College Students’, Research in Higher Education 48 (7) pp.803-839

Hurtado, S. & Carter, D. (1997) ‘Effects of College Transition and Perceptions of Campus Racial Climates on Latino College Students’ Sense of Belonging’, Sociology of Education 70, pp.324-345

Kuh, G.D. et. al. (2005) Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, Paul Hamlyn Foundation: London

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.), University of Chicago Press: Chicago

Research data poetry

A colleague Dr Anna Jones from Glasgow Caledonian University, introduced to me the idea of using qualitative interviews to create poetry as a way to present research data. I’ve been itching to give it a go and have finally tried it. Here is the first effort.

The context is a final year student talking about different assessment types and how certain types help learning more than others. The words in the ‘poem’ are all the students own words. The order of words have not been changed, the only thing I have done is take out words / sentences whilst making sure to retain the meaning that the student originally intended.

What do you think? Is the meaning clear? Is this a useful way to get across what the student was trying to say about assessment?

Everybody has a different opinion.

Some find the essays easy, some find the presentations difficult.

You should be able to show your understandings are independent

and not just book learning.


Coursework is a progressive,

it reinforces in your head

and makes you remember

what you are meant to do.


I didn’t get as much as I thought I would do (in exams)

compared to my coursework grades.

You can be just as smart if not smarter than everybody else

and it comes across as if you can’t.

Why isn’t my professor black? #blackprofessor

Last night I attended this excellent, thought-provoking event at UCL. There was a sense of positive energy and a real desire to move things forward. Very uplifting. I have tried to capture the essence of the event in tweets here – http://storify.com/ncurrant/why-isn-t-my-professor-black?

If you were not aware only 0.4% of professors in the UK are black hence the title of the event.

Here were some of the highlights and ‘take homes’ for me.

The event consisted of six panelist each giving a 10 minute speech. First up was Nathan Richards, director of the excellent ‘Absent from the academy” video which I posted about last year. He told a story about his own studies were he was concerned about the lack of African authors on his reading list. He approached one of his lecturers about this and the lecturer was really unable to respond. He did not have the knowledge to know how to address the situation. if universities are about cultural reproduction then what gets reproduced is invariably a white view of the world. He ended with “the presence of difference around the tables (in meetings in HE) makes a difference.”

Next was Deborah Gabriel, who is just completing her PhD on black bloggers and helped set up the excellent Black British Academics network. One of her critiques was that universities deal with aspects of diversity in isolation. There is no intersectional approach.

For Deborah one of the key barriers to the lack of black professors was the lower likelihood of black students being offered research studentships. This is linked to the attainment gap at undergraduate level and the type of university attended by black students (they are less likely to study at the more prestigious universities.) She also talked about how the largely white, male senior managers in HE engage in ‘social closure‘, whether deliberate or not, that excludes black staff.

Deborah’s final point was the need for positive action to redress the situation.

Third to speak was philosopher Nathaniel Coleman who gave a virtuoso performance on who gets to do Philosophy and what gets done in Philosophy? His final point was in response to the belief that blacks are less intellectual and can’t do philosophy, “Dear dead, white man you are not equipped to do philosophy on your own.”

Next was Lisa Palmer from Newman university who organised the Blackness in Britain conference and will be organising a series of follow-up seminars on the topic. She talked about campuses as colonies – the concrete reality of whiteness at university, the weight of racism, the belief in black intellectual inferiority and the fact that racism has been downplayed in the day to day reality of Higher Education.

Then William Ackah talked about how standards are used to say everything is OK. We have clear and high standards so the best and brightest end up at the top, surely there can be no racism if we apply our standards?

As a slight digression, this particularly resonated with me because I think many university policies hide behind the veneer of equality. Mitigating circumstances is a clear example. On the surface a fair and equal policy that is applied equally to all but the reality is that it impacts on different groups of students in very different ways. Do we really know how it impacts students and do we really care?

William then went on to discuss that blacks are studied as objects rather than as subjects  and their own agents, anyone can be an expert on black culture (referencing David Starkey’s comments on Newsnight.)

The final panellist was Shirley Tate who reworded the question and asked “under what conditions would it take for my professor to be black?” Shirley talked about contemptuous tolerance of blacks by whites in academia. She described how black academics don’t get mentored, don’t get access to institutional knowledge and can only trust with limits. Black academics are outsiders.

At the end members of the audience got to make short speeches which were equally excellent and intellectual. Here are some of the highlights for me, I hope I captured them faithfully:

  • “you can’t say anything without it being seen as racialised.
  • Institutionalised racism in HE needs to be exposed.
  • Higher managers in HE don’t have the cultural competence to change the situation and improve the situation.
  • Racism has evolved to go undetected, by excluding you and finding a way to keep your voice out of the room. What now? What will be different?
  • I went from 3As to getting a 2.2 because I was only black person on my course and got to feel for the first time what many white people thought of black people and it had a huge effect on me.
  • How do black working class people know how to become academics – no experience in family, shouldn’t unis help?
  • Within communities need to push against being a footballer, singer, lawyer etc. and see academic as a valued career path.
  • Only black student on eng lit course complaining about lack of relevant books on course and having only one non-white person lecture her in two years. Importance of networks for black students.
  • As only black member in meetings, I don’t hear managers talking about the issue of recruiting and promoting black staff. It shouldn’t be incumbent on BME staff to bring up the issue.”

Much food for thought and action to be taken.

Update: There are two items in the Times Higher from 20th March. There are also a number of other blog posts about the event:



You can watch the video of the event here – https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2014/03/21/whyisntmyprofessorblack/


On homophily and how to keep an open mind when the web makes it all too easy to live in an echo chamber

Some of my Facebook ‘friends’ have liked those pages that have so called inspirational quotes. This is fine until they repost one or like a quote which then appears in my news feed. One recent one I found profoundly depressing “You are only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with so be brave enough to let go of those who keep weighing you down.” This quote is wrong on so many levels but I’ll just stick to the homophily issue for here.

What it says to be is ‘get rid of people who disagree with you, who challenge you and make you think even if it is painful to hear.’ With the web and social media it is all to easy to live in an online world where you only ever interact with people like yourself and you can easily kid yourself just how diverse a network you have.

“look at all my friends from across the globe, I’m so tolerant and diverse.” Grr.

So how do we avoid this?

I’m sure there are wiser people out there than me who can answer this. But for me I try to keep in mind two simple strategies:

1) read widely, read opinions / articles that you disagree with. This is a good test to help me understand what my values truly are and it also serves to remind me than people do have radically different views to me.

2) Follow people on twitter than have different views (and FB friends). Do the opposite of the quote. Even though certain ‘friends’ and people I follow annoy me intensely at times it serves again as a reminder of the diversity of opinion in the world. It reminds me I must be tolerant of other views.

We can only make the world more equal if we attempt to understand opposing views not hide our head in the sand and pretend those views do not exist.

…and that last sentence risks sounding like an empty platitude (hoisted by my own petard!!!)