Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy

A new publication out this week from the Runnymede Trust, “Aiming Higher: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy” looks at race equality in UK universities.

As David Lammy MP writes in the foreword:

Given lower admissions rates, degree attainment and employability, BME people will increasingly ask whether or not they are getting equal value for the £9,000 in tuition fees now charged for many courses. While higher education institutions cannot achieve equality by themselves, they must do more to pull down barriers and promote equality of opportunity

This fits with the comment we have made at SU regarding this as a business risk as well as an issue of equality.

A number of authors have contributed to the report, which is presented as a series of essays

To pick out a couple of highlights, Andrew Pilkington of Northampton University writes on “The Declining Salience of Race Equality in Higher Education Policy” and reflects on the efficacy of institutional policies on equality, suggesting that “writing documents and having good policies becomes a substitute for action.”

Pilkington refers to  an ethnographic investigation he carried out of one university in the decade following the publication of the MacPherson report, which considered how “Midshire University” performed against a definition of institutional racism. The original study is available as “Institutional Racism in the Academy: A Case Study” (or you can borrow my copy). On reviewing the state of universities today, Pilkington concludes:

that individuals from minority ethnic communities disproportionately experience adverse outcomes in higher education.And yet universities are extraordinarily complacent.They see themselves as liberal and believe existing policies ensure fairness and in the process ignore adverse outcomes and do not see combating racial/ethnic inequalities as a priority.

Pam Tattlow of Million+ looks at “Participation of BME Students in UK Higher Education”, identifying that “Twenty five per cent of all BME students study at 30
universities compared to an institutional average in the
UK of 16 per cent”. Tatlow goes on to consider the type of universities that have this disproportionate population mix and provides a number of recommendations for the sector:

  • more respect for the university choices made by BME students and the universities at which they study should be acknowledged, valued and promoted
  • government needs to scrap the measure of social mobility introduced by the former Education Secretary
  • whole sector challenge to address the gap in degree outcomes
  • impact of research funding distribution on BME students and staff needs to be addressed
  • too much complacency and too little research about the impact on BME students of the 2012 fee reforms and the reforms in further education

The last essay I’ll highlight is by Gary Loke of the Equality Challenge Unit on “Breaking the Race Inequality Cycle in Higher Education: A Change of Focus is Needed to Break the Statistical Groundhog Day”. as someone who has repeatedly looked at the differences in degree attainment between different groups of students at my own institution, then the idea of Groundhog Day appeals. Loke also refers to the idea of risk, but approaches it from a different angle. He proposes that reputational risk is seen as an excuse for inaction, and alternatively proposes that “we believe that institutions that have the courage to be transparent and openly discuss the challenges of addressing race inequality can enhance their reputation.”. Loke refers to a deficit model, where the focus is on changing the individual, whereas a more effective approach is a change to institutional culture,

However, instigating long-lasting, meaningful culture change is complex. There is no quick fix; to create an inclusive culture the whole institution needs to be involved, with strong commitment from senior leaders, signalling that they are prioritising the equality agenda and will be investing time and resource in pushing forward change.

Overall, a welcome addition to the writing on equality issues in the academy, and should provide plenty to think about, to anyone working in one of our diverse and exciting universities.