Leadership training ‘benefits universities, not minority staff’

Effectiveness of courses aimed at improving diversity in leadership called into question by interviews with ethnic minority staff

January 6, 2020
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Training courses to help more black and ethnic minority staff advance into senior leadership roles in UK higher education risk becoming “tick-box” exercises run largely for the benefit of universities and might actually “perpetuate and reinforce white privilege”, an education expert has claimed.

Drawing on interviews with 30 university employees who took part in programmes to support ethnic minority staff, Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, said many attendees questioned the design and effectiveness of such training courses, especially their failure to acknowledge “structural inequalities”, such as racism and class, that often led to under-representation of minority staff in university leadership positions.

At present, only 80 of the UK’s 14,315 professors are black and just 20 deputy or pro vice-chancellors come from an ethnic minority background, according to Advance HE data.

Writing in the British Educational Research Journal, Professor Bhopal, who is deputy director of Birmingham’s Centre for Research in Race and Education, said that while interviewees were “largely appreciative of the programmes”, many found the training to be “too basic in its coverage” and felt that it “[failed] to address the challenges BME staff face” in universities.

“Such programmes benefit higher education institutions rather than contributing to a commitment to inclusion, equity and creating a diverse workforce,” claims Professor Bhopal, who adds that the courses “perpetuate and reinforce white privilege, rather than addressing structural inequalities”.

One interviewee observed that the leadership courses were in essence adapted from those aimed at “white, middle-class women”, and had not been tailored to provide “tools to navigate the complex interpersonal relationships we have to think about as BME people”. Another questioned whether black staff would want to “conform to the white style of leadership…that may not work for us because we are not white”.

Some questioned the fact that the courses were run by black trainers without an academic background, with one stating that it was “bit strange” that there were only BME people in the room.

“White senior academics…should be brought in at the end so that they can also understand first-hand some of the issues we are facing – which many of them don’t really comprehend,” said one black male interviewee quoted in the paper.

This lack of engagement from senior management led some to conclude that “institutions are using these courses as a tick-box exercise to say they are supporting BME staff”, Professor Bhopal told Times Higher Education.

“These courses are very much based on a ‘deficit model’, in which BME staff are told that they need to improve and that improving diversity is the responsibility of these individuals, rather than admitting that structural racism or other inequalities may play a role in the under-representation we see in leadership roles,” Professor Bhopal added.

Although she welcomed the introduction of such courses – albeit “for a chosen few” – Professor Bhopal says in her paper that they risked reinforcing “white normative practices and behaviours in which certain privileges, ideologies and stereotypes reinforce institutional hierarchies and the larger system of white supremacy”.

“If such programmes are to be successful, there must be at the very least a recognition of the role of institutional racism in higher education institutions and an acknowledgement that BME groups do not start from an equal footing with their white colleagues,” she concludes.


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Reader's comments (2)

This situation needs to remedied if we are to be truly inclusive. Institutional racism does sadly still exist and can also be against white ethnic minorities. Over the years I have experienced racism because of my Eastern European background
Unfortunately this does not surprise me at all. Without the critical mass of senior black intelligentsia in UK’s ivory towers there simply isn’t the experience or will to effect meaningful change.