Addressing racial imbalance: HEIs have a real opportunity to make lasting change

Published 30/06/2020

Recently we removed the name of Sir John Cass from our School of Art, Architecture and Design. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.

Over the past weeks since the needless killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the world has come together to condemn discrimination and racism in all its forms. We have seen protests and pleas for change, shed tears and silently screamed at the racial injustice experienced by the Black community every day.

“We see difference as a source of strength and we strive to challenge exclusionary and discriminatory practice”

Alongside the families of all those who have unnecessarily lost their lives through racist behaviour around the world, our community is in mourning. That’s why now is the right time to take this step, but why it’s also too late.

London Metropolitan University is one of the most socially and culturally diverse universities in the UK. Over 60% of our student body are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background – this is who our community are, it’s who we are.

We celebrate our diverse community every day, we see difference as a source of strength and we strive to challenge exclusionary and discriminatory practice in all we do, but we must go further.

We recognise that the use of Sir John Cass’ name contributed to the redemption of a man without acknowledging the enormous pain he caused as a major figure in the early development of the slave trade, and the legacy of this pain.

The use of his name was incompatible with our commitment to support the Black community and to actively oppose racism in all forms.

That’s why, in consultation with our Students’ Union, staff, and our Board of Governors, we stripped the name from the School and will work with our whole community to find a new name which celebrates who we are as a learning institution.

Universities worldwide have a central role to play in the eradication of discrimination and racism.

Although many institutions have improved access to higher education in the last 20 years, a recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report detailed racial harassment as a common experience for students and staff once enrolled at UK universities. Whatever we think we’re doing now, it’s not good enough.

At London Met, alongside our work to increase access to students from marginalised and deprived backgrounds, we strive daily to support them to succeed academically and transform their lives and those of their communities, but not enough universities are doing the same.

We recently adopted a new curriculum strategy, the Education for Social Justice framework, which delivers an inclusive curriculum and will support addressing the degree-awarding gap.

It will ensure critical race theory is embedded into all degree programmes, and specifically involves an aggressive programme of curriculum decolonisation.

Diversity also has to be espoused in the leadership of universities if we want to impact real change. We are working to change the racial diversity of our Board of Governors so our learning community is governed by the cultural groups it serves and are revising our governance systems to raise accountability on race equality performance.

Last year we created a new senior leadership role with responsibility for addressing differential student outcomes, delivering inclusive curriculum, decolonisation and also addressing inequality amongst our staffing group.

We also established a Centre for Equity within the Vice-Chancellor’s Office to drive change across our institution.

We have appointed a Race Equity officer to drive a progressive campaign of race equity workstreams focussing on the staff pipeline, staff representation and workplace culture for Black and ethnic minority staff and have implemented the recommendations of the MacGregor Smith ‘Race in the Workplace Review’ in relation to recruitment and selection processes.

We have implemented mandatory and continual Inclusive Leadership training for all senior managers, which includes training on understanding institutional racism.

Uncomfortable conversations are what make us reflect and learn, and we create opportunities for our senior management team to listen to lived experiences of our underrepresented student and staff groups, but we know we can go further.

But why are more universities not doing the same? If we are really going to make a difference to racial inequality as a sector, we need to see all higher education institutions around the world taking these basic, critical steps.

“We will not stop until we deliver racial and social equality for the communities we reside in”

Starting from the top whilst listening to students’ voices, higher education institutions have a real moment of opportunity to make lasting change. We can’t wait, we have to act now.

We know that by working locally and globally with partners we can connect the dots and spread the principles of inclusive practice worldwide.

Earlier this year we were delighted to host Diversity Abroad’s first ever Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute, which brought together a wide range of delegates to explore key diversity and inclusion considerations in international education.

The inspiring list of speakers reiterated what we already know – there’s a long road ahead but it starts with all of us, right now. This event also inspired our new cross-disciplinary Black Studies Summer School which we will be running in 2021.

A key pillar of our institutional strategy is Empowering London, an initiative to engage with London partners, local education providers and alumni to co-design solutions to the challenges facing our local communities.

We occupy a unique space within our city which places great responsibility but also great opportunity on our shoulders. Key areas of focus include homelessness, clean air, mental health, drug abuse, and knife crime.

There is so much work to do, and we will not stop until we deliver racial and social equality for the communities we reside in.

As a sector, higher education has real power and responsibility to effect change, both within our walls and outside in our communities.

Whilst many institutions look inwards to protect their resources and knowledge, we know we have to work together to break down barriers to access, inclusivity and success for those most discriminated against in our society.

“Uncomfortable conversations are what make us reflect and learn”

We apologise that we haven’t taken this step before now. As an institution, we have a total commitment to opposing racism and should have addressed the name of the School sooner.

We’re going in the right direction, but until the student awarding gaps are closed, the racial imbalance of senior staff is redressed and our curriculum reflects the social and cultural backgrounds of our students and staff, we have to do more.

With a laser focus on building a future where all individuals have equal opportunities, equal value and are afforded equal respect in society, we will continue to strive to go further in all we do.

We hope that from your own corner of the world you will join us on this journey.

Lynn Dobbs has been vice-chancellor and chief executive of London Metropolitan University since 2018. Lynn’s research has involved working extensively in deprived communities across the UK and in Europe. A significant strand of her work has focused on raising educational aspirations among school children and widening higher education participation among disadvantaged groups.

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