The events of 2020 have at times made me pause and reflect. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for Wonkhe which reflected on when I first started working on addressing degree awarding gaps. That was back in 2008. I reflect even further, to when I worked for a rural race equality organisation (which was also one of the independent racist incident reporting centres set up after the MacPherson enquiry).
I was exposed to the many faces of racism. There was the personal overt racism, such as the racist abuse at the many Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)-owned restaurants we worked with. There was the institutional/systemic, such as the recruitment practices of the public service organisations we worked; over-crowded English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses because colleges were paid for each student in the class, rather than the quality of education provided.
All of this was located within the microcosm of what we inhabited: rural England, with its tradition, history and culture; the norms of doing certain things in specific ways. This included an annual bonfire celebration, which was a major festivity (and tourist attraction), and one year, there was an uncomfortable blackface as part of the parade, which nobody batted an eyelid about. It is within these structures that racism exist – where personal and institutional racism are compounded by systemic privilege that therefore allows race inequality to perpetuate.
In a separate blog today, Professor Paul Miller, who joins us to initiate a renewed focus on addressing racial inequality, writes “education is the seed and flower of development”. Many of the people I worked with back then were indeed the fully grown plant of higher education. They were the healthcare professionals, the police inspectors, the local politicians, and had been through the higher education system.
Higher education has a critical role to play in addressing structural racism, through really understanding the lived experience, through making our curriculum and education reflect the society we are, and the society we want to be.
In today’s context, Covid-19 has once again laid bare structural inequalities in health, housing and education and the Black Live Matters movement presses for urgent change. There are many challenges ahead, and I am pleased our Advance HE portfolio of work has focused on addressing race and racism at different levels, through personal learning on our race equality training, addressing structures and culture through the Race Equality Charter (REC) and through our bespoke consultancy for institutions.
At the same time, we all have much to continue to learn, and I see the need for a renewed focus to support our member institutions to understand and address structural racism. The renewed focus will see a number of outputs throughout the year. We will have pieces exploring data and storytelling, lived experience and identity, examining how we have sticky, but much needed, brave and honest conversations about race, and engaging senior leaders into action. We look forward to working with our member community to co-create our continuous learning to dismantle structural race inequality in higher education.