There’s no satisfaction in seeing how biased we can be

We must be alert to unconscious bias at work across the sector and develop ways to tackle the issue to achieve greater diversity

January 21, 2016
White chess pawn in foreground ahead of black pieces

Imagine the perfect lecturer. Would they be a research star on the side? Would they have teaching qualifications coming out of their ears? Would they wear a patchwork skirt, or moonlight as an archaeologist who regularly saves the world?

The answer, apparently, is more mundane. According to an analysis of the 2014 National Student Survey, conducted by academics at the University of Reading, “overall students are happiest when taught by staff with the following characteristics: white, full professors, holding doctorates, and on fixed-term contracts”.

This isn’t a blueprint to spark the creative juices of a Hollywood scriptwriter, but it will be of interest to those working in universities.

Of particular concern is the finding that the perfect lecturer is, according to this analysis, white. In what the Reading researchers say is evidence of “unconscious bias” among students, race was found to be the single most significant factor influencing NSS scores other than response rate.

The upshot, they warn, is that using these ratings as a key performance indicator for staff could be in direct opposition to the ambition to promote greater diversity.

This is not the only example of unconscious bias in higher education, which has been identified as an issue in everything from student recruitment to peer review (both of which, it has been suggested, would benefit from being “name blind” to level the field for those with non-white sounding names).

And it is not the first study to look at racial bias in student satisfaction scores.

A 2009 paper in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology looked at the perceived competence of African American compared with white American professors and lecturers.

Arnold K. Ho, lead author of the paper and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said that his research had uncovered a “double standard” in the criteria used to inform student evaluations of black and white academics.

“Blacks are widely stereotyped to be relatively less intelligent than whites, and thus we predicted and found that when evaluating black instructors, students are more attuned to their competence (for example, whether they were knowledgeable about the material) than their warmth (for example, whether the tutor is concerned with students’ welfare),” Ho says.

“Interestingly, both black and white students, and those who were relatively low and high in prejudice, were all more likely to disproportionately weigh competence in evaluating black instructors. This suggests that stereotypes of blacks can influence all students.”

One of the problems this poses, according to Ho, is that black academics can be affected even if they are not rated poorly by students.

“[If] they become aware that they are being judged differently due to racial stereotypes, they might be negatively impacted by the experience of ‘stereotype threat’,” he said.

“Research has shown that when someone…is reminded about the negative stereotype concerning his or her group, that person may feel compelled to disprove the stereotype, and under some conditions, that effort…becomes a distraction that can hamper performance.”

It’s a reminder of the polluting effect of bias, conscious or otherwise, and must be a factor in the shameful statistic (highlighted again at the launch of the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter this week) that of the 14,315 professors in the UK, just 70 are black.

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