Much debate on race within higher education focuses on curricula, staffing levels and the attainment gap between black and minority ethnic students and their peers.
Far less examined are the research collaborations between universities and ethnic minority artists, educational and cultural organisations. These have immense potential for building capacity, forging relationships and developing new products and ideas. Yet a report published on 20 September by Common Cause Research – a collaboration between the universities of Bristol, Nottingham and Liverpool, the Runnymede Trust and Xtend – points to many obstacles.
“Universities are increasingly being asked to build collaborations,” said Keri Facer, professor of educational and social futures at the University of Bristol, and one of the authors of the report. Yet simply “because of the white majority nature of their staff”, those with ethnic minority communities are less likely to happen.
One key issue is “building trust”. Many projects are “initiated quickly in response to funding calls”, said Professor Facer, “by academics who don’t really understand what it takes to work with grassroots communities. It can involve them doing things differently…They need to learn to hear the expertise and knowledge of particular communities even when it doesn’t come in a form they are used to.”
The new report, Building Research Collaborations between Universities and Black and Minority Ethnic Communities, draws on interviews with 19 existing research partnerships. Small BME organisations involved, note the authors, suffer from “the systematic failure of universities as large organisations to pay small community organisations in a timely manner”. They could also be put off by “the burden of contracts, legal and HR processes”. In some cases, such time-consuming barriers were “seen not as ubiquitous bureaucracy, but as targeted attempts to alienate certain community organisations from participating within university systems”.
In order to ameliorate this situation, the report goes on to set out “10 principles of fair and mutual research partnerships”, including commitments to “mutual benefit”, “transparency and accountability”, “fair knowledge exchange” and “reciprocal learning”. Academics in particular are urged to “explore the possibility of working in or being based in community spaces for projects and longer-term partnerships” and to “recognise that projects will need to allocate time for difficult conversations and for things going wrong”.
It was also very useful, added Professor Facer, to build in “follow-on opportunities”, since “successful projects are those when partners realise they are working together over the longer term. Then, when a critical issue emerges, academics and their partners are able to intervene together.”