I recently heard a black professor state on BBC TV that, in his opinion, British universities are ‘institutionally racist’. On one level I was deeply saddened that anyone in 2018 would feel like that. On another level, I felt quite irritated to think of the effort that we all put into making our places of work and study inclusive, engaged and diverse. But I wondered what I was missing. Why was there such a gap between our two perspectives?
So this is a reflection on what, how and why we do the things that we do in our universities, and whether we are doing enough in practical ways to change the culture on campus so that no one feels excluded and there are no claims of unacceptable behaviours, including racism.
At the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), I am the lead for Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Communities. It is my intention for the University’s approach to inclusivity and anti-racism to be holistic. That means doing much more than reviewing statistics and ticking boxes. The first action is for the Executive and the Board of Governors to set an example by openly engaging in Unconscious Bias training, and talking about it through University comms. This will make it much easier to cascade training down through senior teams, through operational teams, and across the University community. Expenditure on such training programmes – which are not cheap – shows that cultural awareness is part of the organisational development strategy, and is ‘valuable’. Such messages can add value to the student experience, and make us an asset to the wider community. That is particularly important for universities that claim to be ‘civic’ and an ‘anchor’ in multi-cultural regions.
Universities that encourage (or even expect) staff and students to go out into their local communities soon learn what ‘racism’ or ‘hate crime’ means in human terms. They embrace diversity by moving out of their university community, and bring their external learning back into the institution. Being outwardly-focussed and community minded has great potential to affect inwardly-focussed changes and attitudes for the better.
We can extend this community based knowledge by working in partnership with our Students’ Unions, the local police, community liaison workers, schools and local housing associations. The projects that often come from such partnerships, and the practical research that can be undertaken with such groups, should all contribute to the impact that the university has as a good neighbour and a positive place maker. Universities that host Hate Crime Reporting Centres have numerous mechanisms to advertise the Centre, raising the awareness of the problem of under-reported crimes both within and beyond the University. There is a Hate Crime Reporting Centre located in the Students’ Union at UCLan. Finally, after a long time of non-usage, we have nine reported crimes. Nine! In a university community of more than 25,000, set within a city, we have only been able to encourage nine victims of hate crime to come forward. There is a long way to go.
This ‘upturn’ is the result of 12 months concerted effort to raise awareness through a ‘Changing the Culture’ Steering Group, which was set up to challenge the ‘norms’ that we live and work by, including notions of inclusivity. One activity that has been highlighted by this Group is the Bystander Intervention Project, where those who witness ‘hate crimes’ or unacceptable behaviours, have license (or perhaps even a duty) to complain, and thereby cause action to be taken against the perpetrators, even when the victim is unlikely to make a formal complaint themselves. Victims are often nervous of standing up to unacceptable behaviours; witnesses may be less so. The HEFCE Catalyst fund recently granted £50k to a joint bid between the University and the Students Union to support the Hate Crime Centre and raise awareness of its purpose and value; there is no excuse for inactivity.
Another good opportunity to set expectations and raise standards with new and returning students is the moment at which we create induction and welcome programmes. Including videos and positive messaging to reinforce the culture of the University can state expectations very clearly. These must be backed up with clear policies and threaded through all the points of contact that students have with the University – professional services and academic interactions alike. This is why systemic unconscious bias training, cascaded from the very top of the institution, is so important. Respect Charters, going beyond charter marks, can be visible symbols of universities’ commitment to diversity and inclusion. So can specialist careers advisory services, which support international and non-white student aspirations.
We are producing not just graduates, but global citizens, culturally competent and aware of their small place in a wide, challenging world. Global confidence and awareness of other cultures and practices will be assets in life and at work, as they demonstrate social awareness. Embedding diversity in the curriculum, demystifying the ‘other’, and increasing cultural and religious literacy can all be part of the learning experience. Reading lists which include ethnically diverse, female, non-Anglo-centric modern discourses will open minds. Staff from different ethnicities and with varied life experiences, will enrich UK lecture halls. BAME students being encouraged and empowered to undertake PhDs will eventually reshape the faculty. Life stories coming from and going beyond the UK will be of increasing importance as the impact of Brexit is felt. Using sport to break down barriers is another route. Developing mentoring systems for both new staff and students from different backgrounds and cultures is yet another good way of breaking down barriers, expanding understanding, and is great experience for the mentor’s CV and the mentee’s frame of reference.
Universities are like village communities – full of people with different backgrounds, views, values, cultures and personal beliefs. (Unless it is Ambridge, where difference is defined mainly by cow-count, organics and an odd accent from the North). Some might be saintly, some might be villainous, but they all co-exist. Universities as a whole strive to be inclusive, and – in my view – build their reputations on that inclusivity, creating knowledge and improving life chances. We are not institutionally racist, but we are not perfect. Our efforts to improve should be acknowledged, engaged with, put into practice, pushed on – but they should not be rubbished.