Universities pride themselves on being bastions of equality and diversity. But if new figures from the University and College Union (UCU) are anything to go by, it seems they also continue to remain dominated by those from white, middle-class backgrounds – and this isn’t just about about the students.
The UCU analysis found that black and minority ethnic staff in universities are less likely to hold senior jobs, less likely to be professors, less likely to be in senior decision making roles – and are paid significantly less than white colleagues.
So despite significant advances in policy, such as the 2010 Equality Act and initiatives such as the Race Equality Charter – which aims to improve the representation of minority ethnic staff and students in higher education – inequalities based on race continue to exist. And this demonstrates the pervasiveness of institutional and structural racism in higher education.
The ivory tower
There is already evidence to suggest racist practices are prevalent in recruitment, promotion and pay at universities. And in the research for my recent book, I also found that daily experiences of racism exclusion and marginalisation remain deeply ingrained within the culture of higher education. And are a significant and normalised part of working at a university for many Black academics.
One woman I interviewed experienced subtle micro-agressions such as not being addressed in meetings, not given eye contact or asked for her opinion. She also witnessed derogatory remarks made in public about minority ethnic groups.
When complaints of racism are made, I’ve been told about how such instances weren’t treated as racist. I’ve heard about senior managers reluctant to recognise or address racism – refusing to accept it can take place in a university. All of which continues to ensure those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are positioned as outsiders in the white space of the academy.
Institutional and cultural barriers
The insidiousness of racist practices across the academy has proved difficult to challenge through equality and diversity policies so far. The Race Equality Charter has been found to offer potential. Not least by providing a framework that can help universities address and institutional and cultural barriers. But our research findings suggest that considerably more investment and incentive is needed for it to be truly effective.
The Race Equality Charter was introduced following the success of the Athena Swan Charter, which aims to address gender inequalities in universities. Yet the main beneficiaries to-date have been white middle-class women.
Another issue is that an Athena Swan award can lead to research funding for university departments – this is not the case for the Race Equality Charter. So while Athena Swan take-up has resulted in good practice for gender equality, racial inequality has been seen as a secondary priority. Indeed, out of 154 higher education institutions in the UK, there are only 56 members of the Race Equality Charter compared to 164 Athena Swan members.
The Race Equality Charter has helped higher education institutions to take steps in the right direction. But now, more resources are now needed if institutions are to really start to address systematic racism within the academy.
As the UCU report shows, far from being liberal spaces of inclusion, higher education institutions continue to play their part in the reproduction and reinforcement of racial inequalities. Indeed, as I state in my research from 2018: “Higher education institutions are spaces of white privilege…they employ a rhetoric of inclusion but one that is rarely evidenced in practice or outcomes”.
So if universities are serious about inclusion, social justice and equity, then surely the time has come for the Race Equality Charter to be mandatory and linked to research funding. This, along with properly addressing the continued perpetuation of white privilege in higher education – both of which are urgently needed.