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Home Blog Facts, figures and frustrations: the challenges of a national conversation of race disparity

Facts, figures and frustrations: the challenges of a national conversation of race disparity

Published: 20/10/2017

ECU examines reactions to the Cabinet Office’s ‘Ethnicity facts and figures’ site and asks: what lessons for HE?

In August 2016 the Prime Minister announced a ‘race disparity audit’ with the aim of highlighting how outcomes differ between people from different racial backgrounds when accessing public services, whether that be health, criminal justice, housing or, of course, education. The findings of the audit were intended to influence government policy in tackling instances of racial disparities, with the audit’s main output, the ‘Ethnicity facts and figures’ website (together with a summary of findings), being published last week.

ECU was pleased to contribute to roundtable discussions, sharing our vision of ‘equality of opportunity and outcome in participation, progression and success’ for the higher and further education staff and students we work with. We have also been engaged with the fierce debate stimulated by the audit, both nationally and within higher education. Examining wider reactions to the race audit may provide useful lessons to those of us working for greater equity and inclusion for black and minority ethnic (BME) students and staff.

Firstly, it is important to note that there is very little data on higher education currently available on the government site. The scope and priorities of the original project examined data owned by specific government departments (see 3.2.1 of the Statement of Compliance for more): most ethnicity data on higher education however is held, published or analysed by bodies like HESA, ECU in ECU statistical reports (based on HESA data, and with the latest due in November), UCAS, OFFA and others. Higher education is in the fortunate position of already having a wide range of data on participation and outcome by ethnicity available to us, and we are reminded that more government data and analysis on higher education may be added as it becomes available. We hope progress might be made to the ‘Facts and Figures’ website in the future by linking or signposting to external data sources to make them more publicly accessible.

Wider commentaries and debates in reaction to the audit highlight the challenges we in higher education still face on how to best ‘go forward’: whether that be using the Race Equality Charter to progress institutional work; reducing the BME attainment gap; tackling under-representation in student admissions or at senior staff levels, or even graduate outcomes.

Data as delay?

One of the most common responses to the audit – particularly from those who are already involved in seeking racial justice – was ‘so what?’ For many, a concerted effort from leaders to put time and resources into more data gathering can be frustrating when the challenges have been well known by many for some time. Action, rather than further awareness-raising, has been called for by many including the NUS and our REC patron Dr Nicola Rollock. For higher education, this is an important reminder for institutions to make the best of information already available; to communicate very clearly how and when data gathering will turn into action; and to be innovative in reducing delays, whether that be through more ‘action research’ or knowledge-exchange with other institutions.

Data to dissemble?

When racism is embedded within organisational cultures, new activity to address concerns can elicit accusations of ‘tokenistic’ engagement, or using data collection to distract, and delay action. In particular, launching new data to support ‘diversity work’ whilst continuing other policies and practices which might perpetuate inequality will sometimes be perceived as hypocritical, reactionary or disingenuous. Within higher education, senior leaders especially can consider how to ensure their motivations, communications and self-reflections are authentic, and mindful of not only institutional histories, but the history of race in the academy as a whole, and the wider societal structures we sit within. This asks leaders to continually reflect on their own privileges, and to listen to challenges and concerns from minority ethnic staff and students. ECU aims to support such work through programmes such as ‘Achieving race equality in higher education’ which examines issues such as Whiteness and White Privilege.

Data as dangerous?

Some commentators have stated that whilst data on racial inequalities is welcomed, the framing of this data within discussions of ‘racial justice’ may serve to increase racialized divisions within communities, rather than become a tool to achieve ‘inclusivity.’ Should we be talking openly about racial inequalities or not? While some remain critical of bringing such inequalities into open debate, we are mindful that there is much research stating that avoidance of discussing race can obstruct or even exacerbate difficulties in the work for racial equity. At ECU our training focus has been on empowering staff to have confident and constructive discussions about race and ethnicity (and how these might intersect with other structural or cultural inequalities, such as gender, disability, or religion).  We believe that underrepresentation in both academic and professional leadership, as well as significant challenges within student attainment, need to be acknowledged directly.

A further critique of publication of the audit points out that providing data on differential outcomes can decrease trust and engagement of ethnic minority people with those services and so exacerbate the problems. It is worth considering this carefully in the higher education context. For example, if you have a major campaign which raises awareness of an attainment gap for Black students at your institution (even with a clear action plan), how does this affect recruitment of Black students? Does it further entrench deficit assumptions and approaches by teachers and assessors? Does it increase stereotype threat within the students themselves? These are important questions to ask, and highlight the need to carefully communicate the intentions of new projects and discussions on race. However these questions are not themselves barriers to action within any one institution, particularly as this is a shared national challenge for higher education. Instead, we can need to be alert to how continued engagement with students and staff can inform new strategies and closely monitor and refine outcomes.

As we go forth in to the new academic year, the audit is a reminder that data on race is powerful – but only part of a story.

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