Don’t let the pandemic overshadow racial inequalities in higher education

The Race Equality Charter must be part of universities’ recovery plans, argues Dave Thomas 

May 3, 2020
What is a historically black college and university

In 1986, disability activist and sociologist Irving Zola told this parable to medical sociologist John B. McKinlay which he included in his book A Case for Refocusing Upstream: the political economy of illness:

“I am standing by the shore of a swiftly flowing river and hear the cry of a drowning [person]. So I jump into the river, put my arms around [them], pull [them] to shore and apply artificial respiration. Just when [they begin] to breathe, there is another cry for help. So, I jump into the river, reach [and pull them] to shore and apply artificial respiration, and then just as [they] begin to breathe, another cry for help… Again and again, without end, goes the sequence. I'm so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore, applying artificial respiration that I have no time to see who the hell is upstream pushing them all in.”

The architecture of higher education as it was will not be the same in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic – but that may be a good thing. There is plenty about academia that can improve. As the Rhodes must fall, Why is my curriculum white and Decolonise the curriculum movements have shown us, the curricula, faculty and administrations in universities are overwhelmingly whitewashed. There are also inequalities in graduate employment, precarious contracts and inequalities in pay, promotion and pensions.

Even amid this crisis, we’re observing the growth of the #CoronaContract for casualised staff, racial profiling, culturally insensitive student support services, no detriment policies to ensure students obtain at least their average grades, furlough schemes, potential undergraduate student recruitment caps, university financial remodelling and predicted losses in the overseas student market. There will be no “business as usual” after Covid-19. Given the developing fallouts, the ramifications will be far reaching.

But to what extent will the inequality of outcomes in higher education be changed by this crisis? And how will they be related to race? Which demographic groups will be disproportionately affected?

It’s common knowledge that inequalities exist in student outcomes. In response, the Office for Students, in outlining its new approach to regulating access and participation in English higher education, delineated five key performance measures among its ambitions to redress inequalities between the most- and least-represented student groups, which include degree participation, non-continuation and degree outcomes.

If these ambitions are not sufficiently resourced and embedded into institutional strategies specifically designed to identify and redress structural inequalities (such as the Race Equality Charter), could they signal a form of “artificial respiration” much like Zola spoke of more than three decades ago? How do we “end the sequence” of saving drowning bodies without knowing who is pushing them in to begin with?

Michelle Grue, a doctoral student in education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reminds us that in the wake of Covid-19 “we need to imagine something better and put it into action because diversity still matters”.

Conversations lobbying for redress of ethnicity and gender pay gaps, and working and employment conditions, have now been superseded by concerns about the entire future of universities, which will now have to cut budgets because of the financial loss as a result of the pandemic.

What will this cost-cutting exercise look like? If we imagine for a moment that Zola’s “swiftly flowing” river is higher education, we need to pay attention to the people who will be drowning. Can higher education continue to sideline matters relating to race – such as the Race Equality Charter? Given inequalities in pay, pensions, promotions and working conditions pre-pandemic, does the offer of a furlough represent another “artificial respiration”, this time for black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff who are now most affected?

Race equity must not be excluded from the new list of priorities in the academy. Not least because of the fact that the Intensive Care National Audit found that the coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on people from BAME groups. This is a piercingly poignant reminder of the socio-political determinants of health and well-being among these communities that will only be exacerbated by the inequalities in higher education – those that existed pre-Covid-19 and those that will be borne in the post-crisis architecture.

Marcia Wilson, dean of the office for institutional equity at the University of East London, asserts that, “Universities have not created an environment that facilitates black achievement. When black students and staff flourish, it is despite their experiences, not because of it.”

This new strain of inequality could result in a system of double disadvantage. Rather than “washing their hands” of race equity strategies post Covid-19, universities should now embrace the Race Equality Charter as a key part of their contingency and recovery plans, as an “upstream intervention” to identify and redress the socio-political determinants that are “pushing them all in”. As Niamh Sweeney, a teacher of health and social care and criminology at Cambridge Sixth Form College, poignantly warns: “If we don’t recognise now the vital importance of an inclusive [equitable] education system and the positive impact it can have on developing a fairer society, then, I fear, we never will.”

Reimagining an entirely new pluriversity that embraces multiple standards and diverse understandings provides strong justification for the salience of race equity in higher education during Covid-19 and beyond.

Dave Thomas is an occupational therapist and project manager in the Student Success Project at the University of Kent.

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Reader's comments (2)

Like Athena Swan, REC award status should be tied to funding eligibility as well.
I'd say at this point in time racism is over unless of course you are 'white' person. This would be a good time to demolish the old university model, remove leftist, and start anew.

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