Fellow vice-chancellors, we must lead the charge on equality

It’s incumbent on us all to ensure our universities offer inclusive and diverse settings in which anyone, regardless of their background, can flourish, says Craig Mahoney

Craig Mahoney's avatar
20 October 2021
It is incumbent upon university leaders to create diverse and inclusive communities and curricula
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With COP26 on the horizon here in Scotland, the world’s attention is, quite rightly, fixed on the global climate emergency. However, it’s important we don’t take our eyes off another critical and urgent societal emergency – the pandemic of discrimination, in all its forms.

Tackling inequality – and confronting any discrimination based on individuals’ personal characteristics – is everyone’s responsibility. A recent Equalities and Human Rights Commission report on racial harassment demonstrated that the UK’s higher education sector, while having made progress, still has a long way to go in these areas.

The report found that 56 per cent of students experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes, and 25 per cent reported being racially harassed by a tutor or academic. Worryingly, 66 per cent of students did not report the incidents. Furthermore, racist name-calling was experienced by 33 per cent of staff within HE settings, and 80 per cent of those incidents were part of repetitive and escalating behaviour.

Our students and staff alike must feel empowered to address discrimination and, just as importantly, supported when they do so. It isn’t enough to say we’re not racist – we must be actively anti-racist, adopt anti-racism policy and ensure there is no place for discrimination within our institutions and on our campuses.

Everyone – senior leaders in particular – can play a role within the sector in terms of delivering forward-thinking institutions that inspire and support students beyond their formal education and throughout their lives. It’s incumbent on us all to create positive change, to ensure our universities offer inclusive and diverse settings in which anyone, regardless of their background, can flourish.

Universities and colleges throughout Scotland recently made a commitment to tackling racism on campus, signing an anti-racism declaration that was endorsed by the Scottish government. This is a significant step forward as it acknowledges that a problem exists.

An approach that is more adaptive and human-centred can help higher education institutions meet the needs of today’s diverse learners − and of society globally.

It is now crucial we create a pedagogical experience that actively promotes anti-racism practice and ensures the value added by diversity is not only front of mind but actively adopted throughout the sector.

The foundation of such an approach is a deep understanding of the lived experiences of our students and colleagues, including in the area of teaching and learning. A carefully designed anti-racist curriculum framework is key − one that takes account of the personal cultural experiences of students and is underpinned by an inclusive, anti-racist approach designed to ensure assessments are representative, authentic and reflect the lived experiences of our learners.

We also need to reframe how we think about curricula – it is not only about what we teach, it must also be about how we teach. We must include diverse world views and perspectives and not focus on a Eurocentric curriculum.

At the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) we are exploring ways in which our students can help us co-construct our curriculum to ensure it is reflective of their lives and experiences. Learners should be able to relate to what they are being taught – and see themselves in what they are learning.

Rethinking assessment is key. We must ask ourselves if assessments clearly match the learning outcomes and the skills taught by the programme. For assessment to be fair and authentic we must ensure there is a diversity of assessment methods. If our curriculum truly considers and reflects our diverse students, then assessment will also be representative of this.

To provide a fully inclusive, diverse and inspirational environment, we must also embed anti-racism practice and work with students and colleagues to educate them about the true value diversity brings. Collectively, we must work to mainstream anti-racism practice – for our staff, our students and our wider university communities.

One important step is to create safe spaces for our staff and students to talk about race, helping them develop their own racial literacy and engage in critical conversations on racial identity.

Implementing strategic planning processes centred on anti-racism can help ensure our programmes are set up to promote true equality of opportunity and that our institutions continue to reap rewards from the broader range of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds that a culturally rich environment brings.

I am immensely proud that academics at UWS – ranked as Scotland’s leading university for its impact on reducing inequalities in this year’s THE Impact Rankings – are spearheading the promotion of a more inclusive and diverse national curriculum and education workforce, as well as efforts to tackle race discrimination in the education sector. This work is actively shaping government ant-racism policies, national anti-racist curricula and leading UK-wide conversations on this vitally important issue.

Like the rest of society, universities have been on a journey. But for the benefit of our students and colleagues, it’s incumbent on everyone – not least me and my fellow sectoral leaders – to ensure we arrive at the right destination sooner rather than later.

Craig Mahoney is principal and vice-chancellor of the University of the West of Scotland.

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