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Understanding structural inequality: informing meaningful change in 2021

07 Jan 2021 | Jess Moody As Advance HE continues its ‘Tackling Structural Race Inequality’ thematic membership strand, Jess Moody considers our understandings of structural racism and how these understandings influence the way we approach and measure change.

The new calendar year is often a time of reflection, renewal, and – perhaps – reinvention. Never so more perhaps than this January: as we face the legacy of the events of 2020 (health, social, political) and the uncertainties of 2021. It looks likely to be another year of trial, reaction, and adaptation: a difficult landscape for embedding and progressing key commitments to inclusion and equity.

We hope that our ‘Tackling Structural Race Inequality’ programme of work will support our Members in keeping equality work central to their aims, provide resource for ongoing action, and help share the conversations and learning of the sector. This sits, of course, alongside our ongoing services and support.

Understanding structural inequality why does it matter?

In his opening blog on this theme, Gary Loke noted how the world of higher education sits within wider societal racial inequalities, but also forms part of them. He reflected on how ‘personal and institutional racism are compounded by systemic privilege’. Yet we also know from our engagements across the sector – as well as from scholarship and lived experiences – that ‘on the ground’ understandings of how and why inequality and racism actually manifest are still variable, and this can affect the actions we take (or don’t).

Let’s look at some examples of how this plays out:

  • if individual acts of racial harassment or hate crime are considered in terms of ‘bad apples’ – thinking individual racism is an ‘one off’ action – then efforts to tackle harassment will fail to consider more holistic issues like the cultures and systems around these acts (prevention as well as response), and importantly, won’t fully understand the cumulative experience of black and minoritised ethnicity staff and students (EHRC 2019; UUK 2020).
  • efforts to reduce or eliminate ethnicity awarding gaps can still be overly focussed on a ‘deficit’ model: that is, focused on changing certain students, rather than changing the university, course or support structures which may marginalise some students and privilege others (NUS/UUK 2018)
  • conversations vary on how useful or not a ‘data driven’ or ‘data informed’ approach (and aims) can be: what ‘evidence’ of impact of inequality ‘counts’ (or is counted)?

Conversely, where racial inequality in higher education is understood as related to wider societal inequalities, the role of the institution in either reflecting, compounding or failing to mitigate those challenges can sometimes be minimised (Warmington in Mirza & Arday 2018); and individual staff can feel disillusioned or powerless to effect change.

Things are changing. We’ve seen a much more ambitious approach to learning and action in the last few years: with increased engagement with holistic responses like the Race Equality Charter; wider use of positive action around funding and progression; commitments around decolonisation and inclusive education; and more individuals and teams actively seeking to develop their own learning (and unlearning).

But still, the conversations are ongoing– is change happening fast enough? What works? What approaches are useful? These conversations have been more wide ranging this past year or so, with responses to the resurgence of Black Lives Matter as well as key sector reports and research on racial harassment (EHRC 2019) degree awarding gaps (NUS/UUK 2018), postgraduate access and experience (Williams et al 2019; Pitkin 2020; Arday 2020), and underrepresentation in senior academic positions (Rollock 2019) to name a few. These interact with wider societal conversations about how structural racism works: particularly in terms of how structural ‘race’ inequality has contributed to differential impacts of the pandemic (Runnymede 2020).

‘Less talk, more action?’

How we understand and discuss racial inequality matters, because it impacts the actions we take to reduce or eliminate that inequality, and the vision of where we want to get to. It impacts who is ‘at the table’, where the labour for change lies, and how we hold ourselves accountable for the work done, and the way that work is done.

In our work, higher education leaders, practitioners and academics who want to effect change still have many questions which may seem simple but need to be grappled with. Questions like ‘How do we confidently talk about ‘race -  what terminology could/should I use?’ and ‘how do I use different information sources to understand what’s really going on in my institution, why, and what to do about it?’

In 2020 in particular, many individuals and groups sought to raise their awareness of key issues and histories of racism in society and higher education. For others, these issues have been long known, long experienced, and long fought. It’s a critical time then to bridge conversations and ensure strong foundations – and ambitions – for ongoing work.

The first part of our ‘Tackling structural race inequality’ strand will look at Understanding structural inequality: theory, evidence, data and storytelling’. We’re delighted to be hosting a webinar with equality practitioners and researchers reflecting on the role of story and data to inform action and understanding of impact; and later in the month we’ll also be offering a simplified ‘FAQ’ style resource to support members with common questions about structural racism in higher education.

What’s next?

We hope the start of this strand will support a range of role-holders and backgrounds to think about the way you’re framing your ‘race’ equity efforts, and how you’re tackling different manifestations of racial inequality in connected and sustainable ways. My colleagues will keep the conversation going: digging deeper into the idea of ‘identity’ in ‘race’ equality work, and considering issues of challenge and accountability.

These outputs sit alongside our guest contributions, and our range of materials to support your ongoing ‘race’ equity work, including our knowledge, data and research resources, good practice from REC, and training and development programmes. You can also find more about long term change programmes like REC, our work funded by the Scottish Funding Council Support on Tackling Racism on Campus.

Whatever you’re planning for 2021, we wish you well, and look forward to supporting you.

Jess Moody is a Senior Adviser at Advance HE specialising in inclusion across the staff and student lifecycles.

    This blog is part of strand one of our member benefit Tackling structural race inequality in higher education work, which focusses on the theme of ‘Understanding structural inequality: theory, evidence, data and storytelling’. Find out more about this theme here.

    As part of this strand, on 22 Jan we will be hosting a webinar entitled ‘Understanding structural inequality: data and storytelling for action’. The webinar is free to all colleagues at Advance HE member institutions. Find out more and book your place here.

    For more information on the other strands in this area of member benefits work, click here.




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