Race Matters

Three steps to make higher education more inclusive

Over the years, Runnymede has presented overwhelming evidence that there are racial inequalities in higher education, not least in a 2015 report Aiming Higher. Here, postdoctoral researcher Dr Furaha Asani gives her insiders view on what we might do to change the status quo.

Higher education has a diversity and inclusivity problem. While this is not headline news for many, it is something I am increasingly aware of as a researcher.

My own identity plays a part in my understanding; I am a Black woman of mixed heritage. I also live with mental illness, and I have had the privilege of studying across three countries and two continents, all of which adds to my perspective.

Of course, the statistics provide some clarity. Inequities are seen in the attainment gaps based on wealth and ‘race’, as well as the current lack of diversity in academic jobs. These show that both students and staff are affected by a problem that is institutional.

We all agree that creating equal opportunities in academia and holding ourselves accountable to this task are the right things to do. But how do we get there?

Step one would be to acknowledge that the whole academic community has the power to dismantle a large portion of the harm that injustice and inequity have caused over decades.

Literature has been available for some time with helpful suggestions on what the academic community can do to right these wrongs, yet the problem still persists. Complaints about the effects or perceived ‘unfairness’ of positive action can mean that attempts to address ethnic inequality is tokenised, or clouded by confusion for fear of getting it wrong.

I’ve spent the last couple of months planning and attending various meetings and engaging in conversations that seek to advance equality, diversity and inclusion especially at higher education level. This has included organizing an event focused on mental health in Black communities, speaking at another event recruiting mental health social workers, helping to analyse and interpret some university race and ethnicity data, partaking in a forum aimed at encouraging Black students to pursue postgraduate studies, creating and holding an interactive workshop in my department to open a conversation on how to actualize inclusion, along with many informal conversations with the few Black women academics I’ve been privileged to collaborate with within the university. Based on my experiences I’ve compiled some suggestions across three broad themes on what I believe everyone within the academic community can do to promote an inclusive environment.

1. Leadership and visibility

We need to be objective in examining the makeup of higher education institutions’ leadership teams, boards, and members of staff, using annually published equality data. This data often reveals troubling trends. One way to take equitable action is by being intentional about hiring staff from specific identity groups. This goes beyond filling quotas; the fact is that there are candidates other than straight White men who merit leadership positions. Online unconscious bias training alone, which is a favourite go-to in many university induction programmes, may not be sufficient to get people acknowledging their implicit prejudice. There may be the need for more in-depth and lengthier courses to introduce colleagues to the concepts of power, privilege and whiteness. Challenging our own unconscious bias often elicits feelings of discomfort, however if we are truly to dismantle inequality within Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) then getting comfortable with our discomforts is a responsibility we may have to take on board. Of note, privilege itself is not a bad thing and can be focused into creating a world of good. For example, cis-hetero staff and students have privilege that positions them to promote rights for those in the LGBTQIA+ community, and White staff and students can use their privilege to intentionally promote equity for Black and PoC counterparts.

In all these activities, especially at the level of committees, it is crucial that there are attending members who have access to university leadership teams. This would mean feedback can be taken directly to the decision makers. Not only is it important for students to see themselves being represented in the staff body, but also for students and staff to see that university leadership teams care to engage and progress the academic community. While representation cannot solve all inequalities, it does matter and has its place. This could go a long way in promoting a culture of teamwork within the university.

2. Allies and support

While I had always suspected that I had mental illness, I was only officially diagnosed during my PhD after a referral from the disability services at my university. This experience showed me how important streamlined university services are for those who have any kind of struggle, or who have marginalised identities. And being open with my boss about the need to take off a ‘mental health day’ during a particularly tough time highlighted the importance of such days being explicitly included in sick leave. The opportunity to speak about my mental illness has also allowed me to encounter students and staff living with disabilities within HE.

Disability visibility matters in every sector of society, and  HEIs have the responsibility of providing adequate support. Moreover, we can create more opportunities for individuals living with disability through recruitment. To avoid tokenism and ensure these recruitment schemes focus primarily on access to higher education, students and staff who live with disability should be consulted and involved at every step. Additionally, spaces and structures need to be accessible.

It’s crucial to link allies with accountability to make sure we don’t slip into complacency or performance. For example, the rainbow lanyards that many universities use to signify solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community have received mixed reviews. To elicit some level of trust in what these symbols represent, students and staff wearing them should receive awareness training in what being an effective ally entails. This would offer accountability to some extent between any given HEI and their LGBTQIA+ students and staff.

Another way to show support to colleagues is by attending events held by equality fora for race and ethnicity, gender, disability, and sexual orientation (among others). Over the months it has been very encouraging to have members of my research group attend and partake in some of the events I’ve held, particularly surrounding inclusion and mental health. Their support has made my contributions feel valued. Support however doesn’t always have to be attendance. It can also take the form of funding or signposting the best place to find funding, enquiring what help is needed, and promotion of such events.

These same supportive colleagues also happen to be parents who juggle childcare with research and/or teaching commitments. We have often had long conversations about how parents in academia can be better supported. One of the points raised has been that they unavoidably miss out on events at certain times of day because of childcare duties. At a departmental level, being mindful of seminar/meeting timings when scheduling could be helpful to parents. Further, departments could also keep current on and promote the conferences that offer childcare. In addition, parent forums can be created: lunch-time spaces where parents can get together to have a chat about work and life. This would also be an opportunity for those who have managed research careers with parenthood to share some of their wisdom with parents of young children. Forums are a helpful way to provide support for colleagues going through various experiences. For example, hosting a departmental Menopause cafe can be helpful in making those experiencing menopause feel heard whilst also providing an educational space for colleagues who want to learn how to be more supportive.

3. Student and staff voices

Listening to the student voice goes beyond only looking through NSS results. Most teachers would probably agree that in any given student group there are always some who are willing to tell you how their student experience could be improved. Through the years I have come to value the input of all students that I’ve taught/encountered on my own growth as a teacher. It makes sense that consulting students in many decision-making processes will keep HEIs current. This will mean keeping an ear to the ground, consulting with Students’ Union officers, and holding focus groups and ‘ideathons’. 'The movement to decolonise the UK curriculum (being mindful of what 'decolonization' actually means) highlights how positive and impactful student ideas can be'.

My women colleagues and I have also spoken about how during the question time post-presentations, we have often felt nervous about asking questions. One friend, after noticing that only men were asking questions at a seminar, purposely asked a question to provide some visibility for women asking questions. She did this because she was aware of the research that shows women are less inclined to ask questions after presentations. I would encourage all presenters to use blanket statements to encourage women and non-binary individuals to ask questions after presentations. Saying this out loud does not take the opportunity away from men to ask questions, but rather registers that seminar spaces are open to all attendees and all voices are welcome.

As an academic community, we need to understand that while certain conversations are hard and uncomfortable they are necessary to identify what part of inequality we can each dismantle as a larger collective. While many of the suggestions I’ve made may be familiar, until we achieve equity there is just cause to repeat these points. It’s also important that in our ongoing conversations we become conscious of the language used surrounding inclusion and inclusive measures. This goes beyond thoughtfulness with wording in advertised posts.

As author and academic Dr. Margaret Byron says, ‘I’m quite ambivalent about using the word ‘inclusion’ within the academic context. This suggests that there is a norm we are aiming to bring folk in to. In that case I would interrogate that norm. I would propose a goal of social justice, equity and ‘parity of participation’ as several other academics and activists are arguing for’.

About the author: Dr Furaha Asani is a postdoctoral Research Associate in the field of Respiratory Immunology. She is also a keen mental health advocate and freelance writer. In her spare time she can be found yelling at people on twitter @DrFuraha_Asani.






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