Updated: Apr 25
What the numbers say about racial power in UK universities
This research project, undertaken in 2022 at Loughborough University into institutional racism in British universities, uses two research methods. In this blog post, we’re looking at quantitative data (parts 4 and 5 look at qualitative material) that captures the scale and extent of positive and negative experiences of people involved in supporting UK universities’ bids for recognition by the Race Equality Charter (REC). It is awarded when applicant universities show convincing evidence that they have worked to
identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers standing in the way of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students
The Race Equality Charter, and this research, are concerned with institutional racism. University Senior Management Teams (USMT) in charge of institutional direction are responsible for leading change needed to bring to life the Charter. The Charter is clear that People of Colour (PoC) should not be the ones who do all the heavy lifting; it is for powerful White people to do the work and come to understand how institutional racism functions, and how to stop their institution from reproducing inequity. This said, it is also expected that PoC will be involved at their own discretion. The reality is that in many cases PoC have done much of the aforesaid heavy lifting for at least two reasons. First, it would be a strange process indeed if no PoC were involved. Second, USMT have shown no competence to undertake this task themselves. Beyond compliance, they did not do so before there was external value to be acquired from so doing, and they have undertaken no known, structured professional activities to help them achieve this.
In all the institutions that responded, PoC took up the slack in this department, sometimes walking into a wall of ignorance and sometimes into a wall of fire. The survey shows that some PoC volunteer, some are wrongfully co-opted and are afraid of facing disciplinary action for standing their ground. It shows that some intervene to correct egregious institutional machinations, and others support their colleagues more discreetly, from the edges, from what one respondent called ‘the shadows’ and another called ‘the margins’. It shows a primary concern of the REC - that PoC would be drafted to do Senior Management's jobs for them - has manifested. No Senior Management Team members participated in the survey. The data is in broad alignment with a recent survey that found median satisfaction with USMT averaging 10.54%.
Empirical Quantitative Data
The first area of interest involves how participants viewed one another. Table 1 below (USMT engagement with equality regimes) suggests a void between USMT and PoC. USMT seem to start from a position of ignorance (especially since none reviewed in parallel research had any prior published intellectual engagement with racism of any kind), and then move to ensure that this does not change greatly. That is, there are structures put in place that create an expectation of sharing, exchange and growth, but these seem to become quite superficial and do not translate into substantial policy change.
It seems that the notion of form over function is endemic to this process; a strong sense that PoC are seen to be heard but what’s heard is much less acted upon. The problem is aggravated by the fact that oversight and accountability at USMT level are weak, sporadic and not infrequently result in a circling of the wagons (see blog post 1). There’s more regarding this in the 4th and 5th posts, where PoC talk openly about the construction of an exercise that gives the impression of progress without creating any real change, to paraphrase Derrick Bell. What seems most evident is the presence of asymmetrical power in a process designed to redress that very structural imbalance.
Table 2 (USMT antiracist policies are more rhetoric than reality) reinforces the data in Table 1. That is, PoC know when they’re being taken for a ride. All the data came from those at and below Dean level, and the greater the disagreement with the statement, the higher the rank of the person disagreeing.
A lack of commitment and connection to a meaningful, reflective process was widely reported. USMT presented to PoC only a passing engagement with and understanding of institutional racism, reinforcing the idea that USMT’s ex officio position does not translate to actual capacity and professional propriety (see Blog Post 1). Nor did PoC find that USMT monitored, self-evaluated or acknowledged such failings, and they could not be held accountable for these behaviours when challenged. As we will see from the qualitative data (Blog Post 4, 5), attempts to hold USMT accountable in such circumstances exposed degrees of racist institutional collusion that would have made the KKK blush.
Table 3 below (USMT and Institutional Racism) suggests on the part of USMT a combination of a lack of consciousness of their own power in the reproduction and elimination of institutional racism, likely explained in part by the lack of racial diversity in those ranks and a lack of professional preparedness, propriety and patience. The REC has enabled a moment and a space in which senior managers can engage with People of Colour on a matter the former abstractedly admits exists (institutional racism); but the moment and space are emptied of meaning when they are made to reflect and enforce the very power structures and barriers the REC was created to remove.
This has been happening because whilst the appearance of communication has been created, the impact of that communication has been managed by senior management. They have permitted certain interventions and presences, but not permitted the change required to satisfy those interventions and presences. Furthermore, where conversations permitted in these liminal spaces, they did not feel to respondents like safe spaces, meaning, among other things, that USMT were less likely to be schooled in and become properly conscious of the nature of institutional racism and the subtle and less subtle means it is reproduced. Whilst the creation of such liminal spaces were enabled by the REC process, they were enabled without fuller consideration of the Colour-Power dynamic that would remain in place. Just getting people in an asymmetrical relationship into a room doesn't mean the dominant actors are disempowered or the field is levelled. The power dynamic was preserved in the space in which it was meant to be renegotiated.
Table 4 below (Locations of institutional racism) expands upon the loci of such power, based on the number of mentions in the survey, coded by Nvivo.
It also demonstrates how institutional racism is organized and maintained through a diverse range of actors. Institutional racism was least apparent further down the ranks, in line with Ackers’ ‘steepness of hierarchy’ formula, which states that racism is greatest where power is least diverse.
The second most significant engine of institutional racism (after USMT) was Human Resources (HR). This may be surprising to some; HR present as supportive, facilitating agents of change that empower us all and ensure we are all equal, diverse and included. However, HR also acts as the disciplinary arm of management that the literature increasingly identifies (and which is obvious to anyone who goes up against Management from seeing which side of the table HR sits, and takes, in grievance meetings). As one commentator put it,
HR has to act in the employer’s best interests, and therefore cannot be genuinely neutral. HR professionals need to protect their employer from legal claims, and from other employee-related concerns, issues and problems which can detract from successful business performance. They can’t do that successfully if they genuinely have to be completely impartial
There is a case study in Blog Post 5 that paints a gruesome picture of how this played out at one particular institution; but the data shows that collusion between USMT and HR is nationally commonplace. In fact, nearly half of all respondents who commented identified HR protection of USMT members who had acted in institutionally racist fashion.
Table 5 below (Reasons for not challenging institutional racism) reveals why PoC do not feel comfortable enacting the REC agenda: identifying to the mainly White power structures how institutional racism happens on their campuses and why. The main cause for disengagement from the REC mandate was the expectation of denial.
Denial of institutional racism in the UK is institutionalised, although it isn’t just the UK. The US is even worse, but the bar is low. From defending statues of White slave traders in public spaces to undermining our legitimacy by calling us ‘woke’, via denying the role of the Monarchy in imperial atrocity to defending the rights of British soldiers to kill Black people in concentration camps and with ‘innovative’ dum-dum bullets, denialism is almost a national pastime. There is no good reason to expect it absent from USMT, and survey respondents confirmed that this was the main reason they would not challenge them in the REC process.
This elite denial and the embeddedness of 'intra-stutional' collusion in managing such damage has given rise to an overwhelming sense of senior managerial impunity. Table 6 below (USMT are held accountable for institutional racism) shows how PoC view USMT immunity from responsibility for institutional racism.
Further data identified that the accountability ‘loop’ – that institutional circuit within which grievances are considered - got tighter and smaller the steeper in the hierarchy the failure occurred. This further reflects Acker's ‘steepness of hierarchy’ formula, wherein racism is greatest where managerial power is least diverse, and limited quality control and oversight at elite levels.
In sum, 85% of respondents saw the USMT folding the REC process into an exercise in institutional promotion, and 78% felt that although submission to the REC did not imply instant institutional transformation, nor would it lead to this in the longer term. 89% said that the process would only create the impression of change. But perhaps most importantly, the survey creates a band of data that contributes to more than just a description of a process gone awry. This empirical, quantitative material concretizes the idea that despite the best intentions of those advancing the REC and the promise of racial equity, the structures of the modern UK university defy such an outcome. This is primarily because senior management is not competent to acknowledge the nature and structure of the problem and, where this truth is exposed, it is then concealed by a similarly competence-challenged HR body whose first allegiance lays with the power base that perpetuates the problem in the first place. And in the face of such an axis of malpractice, there is inadequate oversight to reprimand those stymying change. The next blog posts dig deeper into those relationships to identify and discuss the Colour-Power Matrix at the heart of the problem.