Professor Rajani Naidoo reflects on five strengths of Bath’s approach to tackling racial disadvantage via the Race Equality Task Force and looks ahead to what’s in store for 2023
This week is Race Equality Week, which is an annual UK-wide movement uniting thousands of organisations and individuals to address the barriers to race equality in the workplace.
In another part of the world, I was recently invited to give the Keynote speech at a Race and Transformation in Higher Education conference in South Africa. I used my speech as an opportunity to reflect on how we are doing at Bath on our journey to tackle racial disadvantage and build an open, inclusive, and high-achieving community. And whilst progress may be slower than we wish, we have undoubtably made progress within our community.
When our work on racism was formalised by the establishment of the Race Equality Taskforce, one of the first barriers we faced was a lack of trust. The very first phase of activity therefore centred on building trust and actively listening to our community to understand their experiences, out of which arose elements of racism. This included engaging in confidential conversations and undertaking important targeted actions to build trust. The second phase overviewed university structures and processes including following live cases of how staff and students report racism and are supported. We worked closely with affected parties to recommend enhancements to our report and support tool. The third phase was to identify innovations arising from our own community to develop synergies with ongoing work.
Here are the five strengths of our approach that I was proud to share in my keynote speech.
- Commitment from Senior Leadership
The senior leadership team, including our Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Deans , Director of HR and student and campus infrastructure services exhibited visible commitment to this process from the start. The Vice Chancellor opened meetings, met with students and staff who suffered racism and personally informed the University Community about steps that were being undertaken. These forms of leadership galvanised all parts of the University in a positive way. At the same time, we drew on the student union and staff unions, on research and teaching expertise and on our equality networks to surface issues. We created safe spaces where stories were shared, ensuring that experiences were not dismissed as idiosyncratic. This was an important complement to our data and policy analysis, and we learnt more than we could have learnt through other means.
- Inspiring trailblazers
We celebrated the work of trailblazers to serve as inspiration. For example, Decolonise Architecture, a student and alumni collective presented pioneering work on achieving ‘realistic and effective change through solution-based initiatives’, ensuring better representation of global architecture in course content, securing more diverse resources in partnership with the Library, and working with the Access and Widening Participation team on recruitment. Their Inclusive Review is a flagship developmental tool written by students and approved by the Department of Architecture which can be used to display significant prevailing subconscious biases. We celebrated the publication of their work in the leading Architecture journal RIBA and were collectively proud that they were invited to showcase their sector-leading work at numerous institutes and events, including the prestigious Bauhaus School in Weimar, Germany.
- Diversity in membership
The race equality taskforce included members with lived experience of racism; members with research and professional expertise related to racial justice, staff at different career points representing academics and professional services; staff and student networks as well as the Student Union and Staff trade unions. This together with the breadth of the work which included the recruitment, experience and progression of staff and students; research and teaching; structures for reporting racism and gaining support and inclusivity training, all created an important cultural context for change.
Our findings included many positive examples of staff and students of colour feeling at home at our University and thriving. At the same time, there were too few students and staff of colour particularly those of African and Caribbean heritage entering the University. Racist incidents and small everyday racial degradations experienced by people of colour which operate in insidious ways were reported. Some staff and students reported that they felt alienated. Concern was expressed about the relationship between student feedback and staff progression, given research evidence that student feedback is affected by gender and racial-bias. Staff of colour particularly women reported that some of their students challenged their credibility and authority and exhibited disruptive behaviour that was racialised.
One of the positive outcomes of the diverse membership of the taskforce and the breadth of the work is that colleagues implemented changes to address some of the concerns that were raised above, even while the work of the taskforce was ongoing; and this trajectory has continued. For example, discussions were conducted on a staff network for people of colour and the identification of a convenor. In addition, the then Director of Student Services, the Policy and Projects Manager and their team ensured that racial harassment was highlighted in the development of our reporting and supporting tool and communication on these dimensions was enhanced.
- Integration and Intersectionality
Work on inclusion was not carried out by a central isolated unit and a few core people but integrated by change-makers in various organisational units across the University for deep and sustained transformation. We also avoided silos developing between different groups fighting for equality in relation to gender, race, sexuality and disability. We tried to frame our work by taking intersectionality seriously and focussing on how multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, sexual orientation, disability and so on) can combine to multiply disadvantage; by proposing incentives such as shared funding to build bridges of communication and nudge groups towards collaboration; and by putting actions in place that simultaneously enhanced equity for a range of groups.
- Enhanced space for dialogue
Rather than instructing people on what they cannot do, we encouraged them within the bounds of respect and dignity to discuss and question. We allowed everybody to engage without fearing they will come under fire for making a mistake. We also gave them the space to fail and derive learning opportunities from this. At the same time, we took action when breaches of respect or harassment occurred.
What do we need to work on in 2023?
First, we have a curriculum transformation programme that brings together theory and practice and we have made important strides in inclusivity. Important work has been carried out by our Centre of Learning and Teaching and by the Centre for Decolonising Knowledge in Teaching, Research and Practice as well as across academic disciplines. However, we need to make our collective understanding of what we mean by an ‘inclusive’ and ‘decolonised’ curriculum clearer. In the Social Sciences, researchers have indicated how non-western knowledge has been largely erased from the intellectual field, or been repositioned as European in origin. These studies are substantiated by research into the evolution of knowledge, which indicates that the growth of intellectual fields is accompanied by power struggles and specific interests; and that knowledge can be utilized as an ideological device for protecting privilege. Clearly, students should be able to see themselves, their histories and their heritage reflected in the curriculum. Including diverse knowledge sources in scholarship and teaching avoids fossilisation and keeps courses relevant. At the same time, it is all too easy to reach the point where academic knowledge is perceived as relative, and where we cannot make any epistemological claim to validity. There is the danger that equating knowledge in too simplistic a manner with a static view of culture may result in students not gaining access to powerful forms of emerging knowledge which gives them the foundation to innovate.
In the Sciences, the situation is even more complex. There is innovative work across the higher education sector on the history and non-western origins of some strands of scientific thought and there is also content on social justice and the application of Science. These are important innovations which relate to history, context and application whilst maintaining fundamental disciplinary principles. These examples illustrate how difficult it is to understand what we mean by decolonisation and how important it is to work through these issues in a way that will enhances the ability of students to engage in deep and impactful learning.
Second, we have an amazing Gold Scholars programme which attracts students from disadvantaged backgrounds and offers financial support, together with a programme of activities to ensure that scholars are equipped with the funding, skills, knowledge, experience and social capital needed to maximise their Bath experience and to succeed in the graduate job market or postgraduate study. This is a successful programme that we are justly proud of. Students have mentors, gain substantially from peer-to-peer support, succeed in their studies and are recruited into excellent jobs upon graduation. We have an opportunity here to take the learning from this highly successful programme and mainstream it for all students, particularly postgraduate and doctoral students from diverse backgrounds.
I am so proud of what we have achieved in the last few years, and I know we still have a long way to go to get to where we want to be. I am optimistic about what we can achieve as a community in 2023 and feel very privileged to be working with colleagues and students who are so committed to building an inclusive University of Bath community.