Following the global Black Lives Matter protests, organisations across the board - public and private - have been forced to confront their own past and present role in creating and perpetuating racial injustice.

Universities have a troubled history of their own and, despite their supposed role as beacons of progressivism, have not done enough to confront and acknowledge their complicity and continuing failures to act, according to Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice and director of the centre for research on race and education at the University of Birmingham.

Universities and students have a storied history of catalysing social change, from France’s 1968 student protests against stifling conservatism and policy brutality to the anti-Vietnam movement across US campuses and the uprising in Tiananmen Square. 

But when it comes to racism, higher education institutions have been found wanting. In the UK, universities are often taking tokenistic measures and failing to confront their complicity in racial injustice, argues Professor Bhopal.

This is partly reflected in their direct participation in the workforce, especially at senior levels, relative to their share of the population. “There are only 100 black professors in the whole of the UK, and only four black and ethnic minority Vice Chancellors,” says Bhopal.

It also manifests in how complaints related to racism are handled within institutional settings. “There is a belief that ‘we don’t have that in our institution. We are progressive, we are forward thinking’. So, these disputes are put down to a clash of personalities and when complaints are made, universities do not have adequate processes in place to handle them”.

Bhopal, whose 2018 book White Privilege explored the ongoing mechanisms through which black and ethnic minorities are disadvantaged and excluded in supposedly post-racial societies, says that even notions of knowledge and research validity are laced with racist assumptions. Curricula remain under-weight on issues of slavery, colonialism and imperialism and when academics work on racism and social justice issues, “it is considered to be ‘personal research…you are interested in this because it has affected you’, compared to other research which is given move validity”.

Bhopal is not alone in her criticism of race in UK higher education. A 2019 Equality and Human Rights Commission report on publicly funded universities in England, Scotland and Wales found that 24% of students with an ethnic minority background had experienced racial harassment, and one in five reported being physically attacked. More than half of staff described incidents where they had been ignored or excluded because of their race and over one quarter of staff had experienced name-calling, insults and jokes.

In an open letter to the UK education secretary, signatories lambasted the flurry of university announcements in support of the #BLM movement were ‘at best tokenistic’. The reality, they said, was an overly optimistic assessment of the extent of the problem, slowness to act, and where action is taken, a failure to ‘seriously engage with the systemic and structural nature of racism’.

A report published soon afterwards by Universities UK, which represents 140 institutions, put forward a number of action points, including empowering Vice-chancellors to introduce new reporting systems, to collect and share data on racist incidents and to engage directly with staff and students who have experienced racism. Commenting on the report, Professor Bhopal warned that race was too often diluted in the equality and diversity discourse.

Financial incentives could play a role going forward. “You have individual Vice Chancellors who are passionate about this and invest in it through, for instance, mentoring programs.” But the issue needs to be organisation-wide rather than rely on the persuasions of individual influential senior leaders. “If universities are not taking meaningful steps, they should be penalised financially.’

Bhopal believes anti-racism mechanisms in place in the UK higher education sector could be strengthened. The Race Equality Charter (REC), for instance, is a framework for institutions to identify and tackle the institutional and cultural barriers affecting BAME staff and students - Bhopal would like to see research funding made incumbent on signing up to the REC, which many institutions have not. Contrast this, she says, with the Athena Swan charter, a similar code of conduct applied to gender, which has much higher participation.

Bhopal argues this mismatch in itself reflects a hierarchy of power within the diversity and inclusion movement, with gender afforded higher credence than race, including via racism within gender equality work. “When I give lectures about race. I am often asked, what about gender? But when I speak about gender, I am not asked about race!”

Bhopal acknowledges that race remains a difficult issue for universities to discuss but says they must move beyond tokenism. “One of the most difficult things is just acknowledging racism and understanding that it will make all of us feel uncomfortable.  Failure to acknowledge racism results in failure to act on it, and one of the key things I work on is to make race an issue that we can discuss. It is important to have these uncomfortable conversations”.

She believes the norms of white privilege and elitism that run through certain higher education institutions - a topic she is currently authoring a new book about - are highly obstructive of progress. “Universities want to protect their own and perpetuate white privilege so that entering an elite institution ensures that privilege is guaranteed.  This  affects access to the labour market, future life chances, social mobility and access to high earning potential”. 

All of this is a far cry from what impact universities should be having on wider society. “Higher education should be at the vanguard as progressive and push debates forward. We challenge notions of understanding of society. We should be at the forefront of this and I’m not convinced that we are”.


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