The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education surveyed over 100 BME university leaders The Italian voice

Unconscious bias training should be made mandatory for staff on university recruitment and promotion panels in order to eliminate racism as a factor in decision-making, according to a report released last week by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

The recommendation comes as a result of a study into the experiences of senior black and minority ethnic (BME) university staff in the UK, which involved interviews with 15 BME academics in leadership positions and a survey of 127 BME university leaders. Significant numbers of respondents reported that they had encountered racial prejudice and discrimination in the workplace, with several detailing specific instances in which they believed unconscious racial bias was responsible for their not being promoted.

A black female academic who was one of 15 interviewed explained that she had been “naive” when she applied for a promotion, “[thinking] that [her] work would speak for itself, but that didn’t happen”. Rather, she concluded that her unsuccessful application was “not because of anything [she had] done maybe, but because of how people perceive black people”.

Two other interviewees suggested that they were not promoted because they did not fit with a preconceived image of what a professor or senior academic should be. An Indian female academic is quoted in the report as saying that “if you are not white or male or middle class then it’s harder to get a promotion” because “[you] don’t represent what a professor looks like”. One Pakistani male academic stated his belief that senior managers “dislike strong ethnic minority males” who could disrupt “white, male-dominated culture in universities”.

The findings of this study echo research undertaken earlier this year at UCL. Part of the Equality Challenge Unit’s 2014 race charter programme revealed that black members of staff at UCL were promoted at one third of the rate of their white counterparts, and that figures for Asian academics were slightly better but still significantly worse than those of white staff members. A report released by the Runnymede Trust in 2015 showed that of almost 20,000 professors in the UK, only 85 were black and only 17 were black women. 

Aside from mandatory unconscious bias training, the authors of the report - Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice at the University of Southampton, and Hazel Brown, a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Business, Law and Sport of the University of Winchester - suggested a number other policies as part of a seven-point plan to remedy the effects of racism on the career chances of BME academic staff. These include having more BME members of interview panels, possibly by having a quota system at the managerial level; a guarantee of an interview for BME applicants if the selection criteria are met; and more support for BME mentoring schemes and staff networks, both formal and informal, of which many of the study respondents spoke very highly as having helped them.

However, there was not universal recommendation of these policies; one interviewee was quoted as believing that “education awareness training doesn’t always help” because “people perceive it as being kind of interfering, political correctness”. There was further disagreement about existing equality measures such as the Athena SWAN Gender Equality Scheme; whilst most of the academics interviewed spoke positively about it, some expressed concern that “gender has more attention than ethnicity” because of a focus of “internal politics” on promoting women to professorial level rather than on wider issues of equality.

Speaking to Varsity, Cambridge University and College Union (UCU) Research Staff Representative, Waseem Yaqoob said that progress on equality was “not a zero-sum game”. He further noted that although programmes like Athena SWAN now exist in many University departments, and the UCU has made decreasing the gender pay gap a major demand of this year’s industrial action against the University’s employers, there is still “a long way to go” — particularly in Cambridge, where the gender pay gap is 17.6%, almost 5% higher than the national average.

He further commented that “attention to gender equality doesn’t actually generate progress towards gender equality”, reporting that “some union members... have noted a tendency for departments to encourage women to take on senior administrative roles so the faculty can look good. Because these roles can require a lot of work but offer the post-holder little in return, they can actually hinder women academics doing the things they need to do to secure a promotion.”

He added that “implicit bias” might be a better term to use than “unconscious bias” in this context, because “unconscious” carries “some unhelpful connotations”.

Speaking to Varsity about the report's findings, Vice President of CUSU’s BME Students’ Campaign, Jason Okundaye said that the continuing lack of BME academics in high-ranking positions has a “clear impact” on the welfare of BME students navigating a “very white academic space”.

Comparing the lack of high-level BME academics with the erasure of BME identities in course curricula, he explained that “not seeing faces like yours at the highest level is another reminder that this institution wasn’t, and perhaps still isn’t, built with you in mind... which forces us to the periphery of visibility and capacity for productivity, but also at the epicentre of misfortune,” citing “high rates of mental health issues within BME students and the BME attainment gap” as examples.

“Along with textbook issues of isolation which come with such low representation, BME students feel far less confident to approach [white] academic staff if ever issues of racism impact their studies and social navigation. There is a much justified perception that white academic staff, being unable to relate, are more prone to 'playing down' incidents, undermining that they could be ‘racist’ or not treating issues with the sensitivity that an understanding of the standard neurosis and trauma of navigating as BME in a dominant white space can gradually...foster in an individual.”