When actions speak louder than words, race in UK higher education.

Race and higher education hit a pivotal moment in 2018 as Black British student’s experiences made headlines across the UK. Mainstream and social media campaigns such as #MyRacistCampus reported Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students’ everyday experiences of racism(s) on university campuses as users submitted their stories via Facebook and Twitter. The campaign supported prior research conducted by the National Union of Students which found that one in six BME students had experienced racism at university. This year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched and published the results of an investigation into racial harassment at UK universities. Results showed that 24% of ethnic minority students faced or witnessed racial harassment on campus. Some of the suggestions from the report included calling for increased data collection and re-evaluating reporting tools.

For those involved in race research, the results and recommendations are just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst further data can prove useful in gauging the scale of issues at individual institutions, all too often the action stops there. Data collection alone is not enough to challenge racism on university campuses, particularly as we seldom hear about actions put in place as a result of research projects. Universities “commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion” needs to go beyond reciting this phrase in response to racist incidents on campus. Staff and students want to see commitment through action, transparency and cultural change. Such progress is beginning to be evidenced through the success of the Athena Swan award. Universities are increasingly applying for and being granted the award at different levels (bronze, silver and gold) which was created to celebrate good practice in the advancement of gender equality. However, a study by Bhopal and Henderson (2019) found that far fewer universities have applied for the Race Equality Charter Mark.

At a time when racial inequality persists in the sector, the response of the Race Charter Mark has been decidedly slower.  One reason is that the RECM has not yet been linked to funding which is what caused a 400% increase in applications for the Athena Swan award between 2011 and 2014. Until it is linked to research funding, there are many reasons to place advancing race equality high on the agenda. Black and Minority Ethnic staff and students face continued inequality in higher education. Black students are the least likely to achieve an upper second class or first class honours, are the most likely to leave their degree programme prior to completion and have poorer career prospects than their white counterparts. Similarly, Black academics confront unequal career prospects, perhaps the starkest figure being that there are less than 30 Black female professors out of 19,000.

In the face of such clear racial inequality question marks hover in regard to the commitment to change from universities. Research is one way that we can continue to evidence, document and honour the experiences of students and staff of colour. However, beyond research we have to ask, what evidence is there that race equality is a priority at the individual and sector levels? What changes have been made and how are these being incentivised? How can we make race equality as successful as gender equality? Recommendations, solutions and best practice are widely available yet there are clear differences when looking at the strides some individual institutions have made. If we want to widen participation and promote equality, diversity and inclusion at UK universities we have to take necessary and radical steps towards it.

Lateesha is a PhD student in the department of psychology at the University of Bath. Her doctoral research focuses on Black students’ identity and sense of belonging. She combines ‘belonging’ with ideas of authenticity and connects this to misconceptions surrounding ‘generation snowflake’. Lateesha also works as an Equality and Diversity trainer, developing and delivering courses such as Unconscious Bias and Racial and Cultural Competency. Currently, Lateesha is part of the Western Widening Participation Research Cluster and is involved in widening participation activities at the University of Bath. She has been a speaker at a number of Diversity and Inclusion events, such as the Joint Equality Forum hosted by the University of Bath and Bath Spa University.

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