Race Matters

Race equality in higher education symposium

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How do we achieve race equality in higher education (HE) when all the statistics show high levels of unequal outcomes?

This question was tackled by a range of HE professionals yesterday (9th July 2015), including Baroness Doreen Lawrence and Runnymede’s head of research Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard.

The Brighter Futures symposium was held at Greenwich university, which was perhaps the best venue for the debate considering that Baroness Lawrence studied, worked and was awarded an honorary doctorate there for her championing of race equality.



She opened the event by locating the topic of race equality in HE firmly within the wider struggle against institutional racism across the spectrum, and remarked that the HE system continued to “perpetrate racial injustice” while “avoiding scrutiny.”

The Labour peer, who led a long campaign for justice for her murdered son Stephen Lawrence, said that BME (black and minority ethnic) students were being held back by tutor expectations of them.

She said that one way forward were recommendations in a previous Runnymede report to offer positive support to BME students and ensure education institutions collected and published statistics on race.

Baroness Lawrence mused that another way forward could be for the HE sector to adopt a version of the United States ‘Rooney Rule’ – a positive action measure in American football whereby interviews for coaching roles must include a BME person on the shortlist – as a means to tackle the under-representation of BME staff in British universities.

She added that there was a need to promote subjects like architecture, where BMEs are under-represented, in schools to whet their appetite for such careers. The Stephen Lawrence Trust, which has a centre in south London, runs architecture schemes in memory of Stephen, who wanted to enter this profession.

The Brighter Futures: Enhancing opportunities for all in higher education symposium, organised by Greenwich university’s department of history, politics and social sciences, heard presentations from several academics on the subject of advancing race equality in HE.

debbiewb1Runnymede’s Dr Weekes-Bernard began her talk by noting that the discourse around social mobility focused to rigidly on class and missed the unique dynamics of race.

“How does a focus solely on poverty adequately explain how a Chinese girl, who is eligible for free school meals, outperform all other groups?”, she asked.

Dr Weekes-Bernard highlighted studies that showed that five year olds from many BME communities had higher than average achievement rates, but by the time they reached ten years old patterns had emerged with Caribbean and Bangladeshi children falling down the comparative table, while Chinese and Indian children had risen to the top. This picture largely remains the same for the rest of their primary and secondary school education.

However the picture changed again at top Russell Group universities, where white young people, who were half way down the ethnicity table at school, suddenly sprang to the top of the table in attaining first and 2:1 degrees.

This, Dr Weekes-Bernard observed, was because the elite universities had “filtered out” talented BMEs in favour of white, middle class, students. It was this cohort that most benefited from being hired by elite professions such as commercial law firms.

Part of the problem was BME communities self-excluding, lacking the confidence to apply to red brick universities or lacking the advice about how to get there, such as interview techniques.

But the other half of the problem was the Russell Group, including Oxford and Cambridge, failing to reach out to BME people, welcoming them in, and ensuring that exclusion and racism within their institutions are dealt with.

“Minority ethnic and migrant parents and children are broadly aspirational”, she said, “yet education choices throughout school, college and university fail to benefit them.”

Dr Weekes-Bernard pointed to research that 55 percent of white and 35 percent of similarly-qualified BME young people were offered places at the top universities. Meanwhile just 30 universities, many of them old poly’s, were educating 60 percent of the entire BME student population.

There was a need for business to “reframe the question of talent” and recognise that giving preference to Russell Group graduates risks missing out on exceptional talent, including BME students who would have made it to those universities all things being equal.

Professor Kalwant Bhopal, from the University of Southampton, began by welcoming the new Race Equality Charter being introduced next year, a charter-mark for universities who can prove they have higher numbers of BME senior staff.

She noted that fee-paying public schools were employing staff specifically to coach students – often from wealthy backgrounds – to get into the best universities while state schools were axing their careers advisers.

“Processes of racism, exclusion and marginalisation continues in universities along with the stereotype of white middle class pupils as the ‘ideal pupil’”, she said. “This relates to notions of belonging and not belonging in the white space.”

BME students, particularly African and Caribbean’s, were also less likely to continue with post-graduate studies because they were disadvantaged by lacking the “financial capital” which wealthier families were able to provide, and had to rely on bursaries.

Runnymede congratulates the organisers on a well-run and interesting symposium.

By Lester Holloway
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