Priorities for tackling racial harassment and improving the BAME experience in higher education

A Westminster Higher Education Forum policy conference recently addressed the disturbing issue of racial harassment and set out suggestions for improving the black and minority ethic (BAME) experience in higher education (HE).

Speakers representing the HE sector included staff and student union representatives, and input was given by legal experts as well as from independent public bodies. All highlighted the scale of racial inequality within the sector and outlined actions needed and being taken to redress this.The Equality and Human Rights Commission Inquiry into the nature of racial harassment in HE identified that racial harassment led to one in twenty students and three in twenty staff leaving their HE institutions. Statistics indicate that while some 60,000 individuals reported racial harassment, universities had only 80 complaints on their books. Further issues discussed related to the BAME student attainment gap and the lack of career progression for BAME academics.The attainment gap refers to BAME student academic outcomes compared with white student outcomes; the awarding gap was noted as being as high as 30% in favour of white students. BAME staff were reported to be concentrated in the lowest grades and passed over for promotion.

How can HE institutions improve EDI outcomes?

The conference discussed legal recourses as well as practical remedial actions, with emphasis placed on how HE institutions can improve their equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) outcomes. The role of EDI committees was discussed and their shortcomings noted. Typically, EDI committees have a largely white composition reflecting a traditional leadership profile which lacks real-life experience of racism. However, token BAME representation around a committee table will not result in change; diversity is needed at the highest levels of leadership.Making interventions before people attend committees can help to identify issues that otherwise might remain unaddressed. For example, pre-meetings can be held with relevant individuals to discuss issues to be included as agenda items. Drawing upon lived experiences should not, however, be the sole responsibility of BAME personnel to bring change into effect. All have a responsibility for action. White privilege should be recognised and addressed through training.Official statistics hide the true level of racial harassment and discrimination complaints made. For example, racial harassment and discriminatory practices may be reported to somebody but the complaint not taken forward (as shown by the huge gap between universities’ officially logged complaints and those reported).The number of complaints is also unlikely to be representative of the scale of the problem as many harassment incidences are not raised at all. This is because BAME students and staff report a lack of confidence that their issues will be addressed. A culture of trust needs to be built that is more reassuring so that victims speak out. Encouraging complaints to be raised and taken forward and the promotion of the use of tools such as Report and Support can result in higher levels of reported complaints. While this can appear to have a negative effect on universities’ league table positions, it actually demonstrates that constructive action is being taken to deal with racial harassment and to improve the BAME experience.

Staff training is crucial moving forward

Improved staff training is also required to raise knowledge as to how to handle complaints. Better reporting tools are also needed to gain a fuller picture of the problems that must be tackled. Recording anonymous complaints can help to understand the scope and nature of what is happening, providing a baseline for action. This can be more representative than can be seen from officially recorded and processed named complaints, given these are taken forward by victims less frequently.BAME students see university structures, the staff body and the curriculum as unrepresentative of themselves. Greater BAME staff representation across the grades from lecturers to professors is needed with staff demographics closely aligned to that of students. While recruiting BAME staff into university teaching teams is acknowledged as difficult due to fewer qualified candidates (flowing from issues such as the attainment gap), action can still be taken. Examples were given of BAME students sitting on appointment panels and EDI committees. Decolonisation of the curriculum (the empire and its effects) can help to achieve a more inclusive curriculum framework. The availability of BAME counsellors within the student counselling service can support BAME students who may prefer to talk to non-white staff about racial and other issues.To improve the BAME HE experience, the conference concluded that we should not need to rely on reports and statistics. We should be led by integrity, listen to the message and change structures accordingly, and operate under a policy of kindness.

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