Blog post by Ashlee Christoffersen, Aerin Lai and Nasar Meer, University of Edinburgh, UK
RACE.ED and Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power have published a new collection of essays exploring racial justice work in higher education, titled Advancing Racial Equality in Higher Education.
The collection follows on from the event “Racial Equity Work in the University and Beyond: The Race Equality Charter in Context”, which explored what racial equality means in higher education and was organized following publication of the report of a large-scale review of the Race Equality Charter. Advance HE’s Race Equality Charter (REC) is a UK wide programme that began in 2016 aiming to improve the representation, progression and success of Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students[i] within higher education. REC is one tool for addressing racial injustice in higher education institutions.
At the University of Edinburgh, REC membership inspired the establishment of the Edinburgh Race Equality Network. Among other findings, the review of the REC found evidence of a prevailing anti-Blackness in universities, wherein outcomes for other minority ethnic groups seemed to have improved due to REC efforts while in some institutions the outcomes for Black staff and students had remained the same or worsened. Moreover, evidence suggested that siloed efforts toward race equality on the one hand, and gender equality on the other (e.g. through the Athena Swan Charter) had, predictably, failed to address the specific experiences of Black women and other women of colour.
The REC review involved speaking with equality and diversity practitioners tasked with leading racial justice work in their institutions, from across the UK. These practitioners, often from racially minoritized backgrounds, are frequently isolated in their institutions, lacking institutional seniority, support or resources to make the changes required. Often, they sit uncomfortably within university HR teams which can be resistant to making procedural changes that might enable better representation and outcomes for staff and students of colour. Race equality practitioners work with academics, other professional services staff, and students on racial justice efforts, who themselves are often isolated and do not have their racial justice work properly recognized or remunerated. Yet, during the time the REC review research was conducted, renewed mobilization of racial justice movements in the light of the murder of George Floyd had seen universities across the UK make public statements condemning the murder and committing themselves to renewed racial justice efforts, such as this one from the University of Edinburgh. These statements remained promissory notes to many antiracist academics and activists at the time, given perceived lack of real commitments explaining the slow pace of change (though at the University of Edinburgh important new efforts in this area are underway). Race equality practitioners often shared this scepticism and cynicism, but some were also hopeful that these statements might lead to concrete improvements, for instance in allocation of resources to racial justice work.
We are now two years on from the event and three years on from these renewed mobilizations. This collection asks an important contextual question—what, if anything, have universities done to progress racial justice in the meantime? What should racial justice and “decolonization” efforts by universities comprise of? What are the obstacles to achieving racial justice in universities? How can we ensure that racial equity work specifically addresses anti-Blackness and achieves outcomes for Black staff and students as well as other students and staff of colour? How can racial equity work be undertaken in an intersectional way? How can universities engage people from across the institution, and develop a better understanding of race and structural racism in the institution’s particular context? What institutional initiatives are happening in the sector, and what are they achieving?
The context for racial equity work in universities has changed in more ways than one since 2020. Indeed, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK saw a dramatic rise in often violent hate crime committed against the East Asian community. Within the context of the neoliberal university that sees Chinese students as invaluable sources of income, what is the moral responsibility of the university in first, ensuring the safety of its students, and its role in educating its student polity on the historical specificity of racism targeted toward Asians within the context of British colonialism?
Moreover, the higher education sector can be riven with conflict about not only increasing neoliberalization, but also equity efforts more broadly. A backlash politics against recognizing a plurality of equality claims, sometimes called “culture wars”, has bolstered the visibility and power of (often aligned) antagonists with media and policy platforms, and which has included the UK government. In many respects, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is a culmination of these agendas, specifically in seeking to sanction HEI institutions where they deny platforms to protagonists to promote these agendas within the activities of the university life. Further, the mobilization of anti-terrorism legislation to target Muslim university students, crosses a new Rubicon in the relationship between UK HEIs and the Westminster government.
In some respects, the growing power of this agenda is seen in the case of Advance HE itself, which has been subject to controversy because of its regression on trans inclusion efforts, represented by its platforming of a speaker with known transphobic views to the exclusion of any trans speakers at its 2022 conference on gender equality in HE, and its “backsliding” from good practice in equality and diversity data collection. The important essays presented in the collection, from Arun Verma, Paul Ian Campbell, Sarah Gordon, Parise Carmichael-Murphy, John Holmwood and rashné limki, address the above questions and more.
[i] This is the terminology used by Advance HE. We recognize limitations of such terminology and authors in this collection have utilized their own. For discussion see e.g. Bhopal and Preston 2012.
The edited collection is Open Access and available for download at:
Advancing Racial Equality in Higher Education | Edinburgh Diamond
You can download the PDF of the full edited collection at:
Advancing Racial Equality in Higher Education