The recent report published by the EHRC1 (2019) ‘Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged’ has once again illuminated issues of racial discrimination in HE, ranging from explicit mistreatment to micro-aggressions. This is now a familiar story that recounts the negative experiences of BAME2 students in universities across the country. The EHRC (2019) study found that a quarter of ethnic minority students had experienced racial harassment since the start of their course. Similar studies conducted by the Office for Students (OfS, 2019) and the National Union of Students (NUS, 2019) highlight the prevalence of these issues and the desperate need for change. This coupled with the growing media interest in racism in universities has rightly amplified the issue of BAME experiences in HE, such as the recent Guardian (2019) article covering the controversy over the ‘Insider-Outsider’ report (Akel, 2019) that explored BAME student experiences at Goldsmiths. The bottom line is, this issue isn’t going away, and nor should it.
Many of the issues highlighted by recent publications are reflected in my (Amira) own research, which explored female BAME students’ perceptions of whether postgraduate education was for them. I worked with five final-year students using walking interviews around their university campus to reveal how these women experienced university spaces, and how that experience influenced their engagement with HE. My results revealed participants’ dispirited attitudes towards continuing in academia, with many expressing feelings of disillusionment with their undergraduate experiences, anxieties around the quality of education and support and a lack of BAME role models in the institution. Interestingly, the main conclusion drawn from my results was that students’ perceptions of PG education were not only negatively influenced by experiences of marginalisation and bias at undergraduate level, but were also deeply engrained by the time students entered their final year.
By placing myself metaphorically and literally into the spaces these women inhabited at the university through the walking interviews, I was able to understand how their response was to seek out peripheral spaces, which they could occupy under their own terms. They adopted transactional approaches with the university environment, with little sense of belonging. Simply put, the participants did not trust their institution to give them a fair deal. This lack of trust expressed by the participants in their institution and the staff was in fact the most striking finding of my (Amira) research. It led to participants censoring their true identities; “playing the game” and keeping their heads down as they felt that drawing attention to themselves came with risks. For these students, academia is a game in which the odds are stacked against them, so they opt to play from the side-lines. The result is that we all lose.
Something can and must be done – but what? There is now, of course, a wealth of literature (e.g. Smith, 2017; Austen et al, 2017; Miller, 2016) which sets out clear recommendations and practical steps that institutions can implement and indeed, may already be doing. These include:
– decolonising the curriculum by reviewing course content and teaching materials so that they reflect the diversity of knowledge that exists. This includes teaching research methods that are more inclusive such as the walking interviews I (Amira) used for my own research;
– implementing blind marking to address unconscious bias. This was raised by most of the participants in my study as an important way to build trust in the institution. For example, one student felt she had been disadvantaged because of her “ethnic sounding name”.
Measures beyond the curriculum also need to be taken. Mentors, allies and role models are crucial. But these roles should not be disproportionally placed on BAME staff and students. Instead, as Miller (2016) advocates, there should be a sense of ‘shared ownership’. Allyship calls for a willingness to show up and critically think about the ways in which we are complicit, either directly or unwittingly, in disadvantaging people of colour (Abdi, 2019). To be allies, staff need breathing space to listen, learn, act and listen again. I (Lisa) am afraid of getting it wrong, accidentally offending or appearing (and feeling) awkward. I know that some conversations will be difficult, but they are critical to the process of growing and learning. It will be worth it.
I (Amira) have had good experiences which have enabled me to successfully complete my studies and experience a safe space where I felt my voice was heard, respected and appreciated. This interaction with just one or two lecturers restored my faith that academics do care. The truth is that positive experiences are as potent as negative ones. There is power in reaching out and taking action. However, staff need to be given the time and space to do so, just as institutions need to make structural changes. Research has shown that pockets of change are already occurring across faculties, student unions and universities across the country, with varying levels of success. However, the startling figures discussed at the beginning of this blog indicate that there is a lot more work to do. For radical change to occur, we need waves not ripples.
- We note that this study has been heavily criticised for the inclusion of anti-white prejudice in the authors’ definition of racial harassment at universities.
- We acknowledge the limitations of using homogenising terms such as BAME/BME which mask differences between ethnic groups.
Amira Samatar is a PhD student at the SIoE and recipient of a vice-chancellor’s scholarship. Her research explores female BAME students’ experiences through the academic pipeline.
Dr Lisa McGrath is a senior lecturer in the SIoE. Her research focuses on academic writing development and genre pedagogy. She supervised Amira’s MA dissertation on female BAME perceptions of postgraduate education.