Black History Month: Barriers to Racial Equality in Higher Education

26 October 2020

Guest blog by Dr Winifred Eboh, Director of Staff Development and Wellbeing and Postgraduate Research Director, University of Essex 

In the 2019 survey of Universities in England, Scotland and Wales, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that academic staff and students were experiencing racial discrimination. Additionally, following the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, the subject of racial inequality and discrimination have been highlighted both across the UK and globally. Higher education institutions (HEI) have a duty of care to their staff and students and need to show true leadership and commitment to dismantling racism within the education setting, in order to facilitate equal career and life opportunities for all.

The School of Health and Social Care at the University of Essex has prioritised this issue and are committed to addressing racism. The University set up a Tackling Racism Working Group alongside a designated communication email for staff, students and alumni to share their experiences of racism. These communications were themed and actions developed to address key areas, with short, medium and long-term goals being set. Despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, the University has committed to a number of actions, for example, supporting consultation with high profile Black academics who have championed issues around racism in higher education to work with us. The University has also supported reading groups on the decolonisation of reading lists and curriculum supported by the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education.

The Dean of the School of Health and Social Care was keen to ensure that there is a continuous dialogue with staff and students to find out experiences, prevalence and effects of racism. Much of the information we received from our students centred around their experiences of marginalisation in placements, which were reported across a range of disciplines including nursing, speech and language therapy, social work and occupational therapy. We set up a Working Group with staff and student representation, that sought to open a sensitive, transparent and honest dialogue about racism and to identify clear actions that are needed to tackle this.

From these meetings three main areas emerged, resulting in distinct sub-groups:

  1. Health & Wellness;
  2. Education and Curriculum;
  3. Placement and Racism.

The three groups are co-chaired by our student ambassadors, together with staff, to ensure that the needs of the entire School community are fully addressed.

In addition to these areas, the Working Group also identified some overarching themes that cut across each one of these areas: Intersectionality, Discrimination and Giving Voice. The groups will reconvene at the end of November to agree specific and measurable actions to address racism in higher education.

We would encourage HEIs to look at their processes and consider their own barriers to racial equality. Suggested reading:

‘Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations projectBlog by Jacqueline Fitzpatrick, ESOL Lecturer, Glasgow Kelvin College

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