Racism in University

Why do Black and Minority ethnic students generally get a lower class of degree than their white counterparts? This “attainment gap” varies year on year but is around 18%, ie proportionately more white students get a 1st or a 2:1. About 68% of white students get good degrees compared to just 50% of other students.

The reasons are complex and actually we are not certain exactly what is happening. It is true that minority students are more likely to come from deprived backgrounds and we know this impacts on achievement. Social capital may play a part as may the fact that minority students are more likely to study at a university close to home and commute. BUT…However much these factors play a part we can’t hide from a simple fact: there is growing evidence that “even after controlling for the majority of factors which we would expect to have an impact on attainment, being from a minority ethnic community … is still statistically significant in explaining final attainment” (Broecke and Nichols, 2007:3). What does this mean? Surely, it can only mean there is institutional racism within the system; unwitting maybe but there none the less.

So we have liberal, well-meaning, multicultural institutions which seem to have an inbuilt element of racism. How can we make sense of this?

Gulam (2004) suggests that universities have taken a ‘colour blind’ approach to race with an emphasis on managing diversity (Singh 2009) and equality policies without really investigating or tackling the underlying causes of race inequality. This ‘colour blind’ approach, although concerned for equity and justice, still “operates as a mechanism by which particular groups are excluded from the mainstream” (Gillborn 2006:21). We need to take a more radical approach. The more I read about Critical Race Theory (CRT) the more this appears to be an approach that might actually start to make a difference. CRT is a hotly debated theory that emerged from the US in the context of law. You may not agree with it but I would urge you to at least look at it with an open mind because I’m not sure that our current policies are enough.

Broecke, S. and Nicholls, T. (2007) Ethnicity and Degree Attainment. Department for Education and Skills Research Report RW92. Available from: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/RW92  [accessed 22nd August 2012]

Gillborn, D. (2006). Critical Race Theory and education: Racism and anti-racism in educational theory and praxis. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 27(1), 11-32.

Gulum, W. (2004) Black and White Paradigms in Higher Education in Law, Philips and Turney (eds) Institutional Racism in Higher Education, Trentham Books: Stoke

Singh, G. (2009) Black and minority ethnic students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success, Higher Education Academy: York