‘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!

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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.