By Dr Deborah Gabriel, Lecturer in Marketing Communications, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Black British Academics.
Race has been a low priority for most higher education institutions over the last two decades for two key reasons. Firstly, it is always approached as a problem but few solutions are ever advanced. Secondly, race has largely been approached as a ‘diversity’ issue, which has many drawbacks.
Race is usually found alongside other ‘equality’ strands within equality and diversity steering groups that are led by senior managerial staff, usually Deputy Vice Chancellors or Deans. Staff and students of colour are largely absent at these levels and therefore excluded from policymaking around race equality. As a concept, diversity is ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of race and racism, being premised on multiculturalism, which constructs diversity in terms of assimilation into the dominant culture, failing to address unequal power relations and usually offering tokenistic, rather than radical change.
Black British Academics is a dynamic organisation that I founded in April 2013 and lead as the Chief Executive Officer. At Black British Academics, we approach race equality through the conceptual framework of cultural democracy, which posits that all ethnic and cultural groups in a diverse society have a human right to equality of opportunity and equal access to power. Within this framework power is defined as the capacity to advance one’s view of the world and one’s place within it as an active participant. So in terms of race equality within academia, it is highly relevant in terms of staff and students of colour needing to be involved in policymaking around race equality.
Cultural democracy has taken on greater significance within an increasingly marketised environment where young Indian, Chinese, black and Asian school children are more likely to attend university than their white classmates, according to a UCAS report in 2013. The fierce competition for international students and the changing demographic among the student population demands a more culturally enriched curricula that has greater international relevance and enhances the student learning experience.
But the strongest argument for cultural democracy is the responsibility that higher education institutions have to produce graduates that are equipped with the cultural competencies needed to be informed citizens in a diverse world. The combined population of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean is almost 5.5 billion, while the population of Europe is less than 800 million. Terms like ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘black and minority ethnic’ do not reflect the cultural reality of the world we live in and only serve to reinforce notions of inferiority and superiority.
Cultural democracy demands that universities reflect different ‘voices’ by offering diverse curricula that rejects Eurocentricity. It demands that universities teach critical perspectives that expose inequalities in all areas of society and equips students with the skills to understand the varieties of human experience. What defines our unique approach to race equality at Black British Academics is our ethos of ‘collaboration not confrontation’. With that in mind, our aim is to work with university leaders to support their efforts to deliver measurable change.
We do that in many ways but especially through our annual Leaders Forum, which is a space for progressive thinkers, a platform for sharing new strategies and ideas, and an opportunity for Vice Chancellors and senior managerial staff to sit at the table with staff and students of colour, most of whom are change makers and race equality champions in their own right. This is because rather than merely repeating what is already known about racial inequality, at Black British Academics we promote leadership on race equality by encouraging our members to develop initiatives within their own institution and become active agents of change. Our members are staff and students from all ethnic backgrounds, from a variety of disciplines and from universities across the country from Scotland in the far North to London in the South East.
At our inaugural Leaders Forum on October 8, our members delivered workshops on inclusive teaching practices, curriculum diversity and critical research, demonstrating how our approach to race equality (which is proactive rather than reactive), helps to enhance the strategic goals of higher education institutions. We were joined by around 15 university leaders, mostly from London including Vice Chancellors, Deputy and Pro-Vice Chancellors, Deans, Provosts and Principals. The Chancellor of the University of Westminster, Lord Paul of Marylebone, PC, gave a Keynote speech at our VIP Evening Reception.
BU will be hosting the next Leaders Forum in 2015 and this will have a big impact on the region, as well as this university. Over the next 10 months I hope to organise a series of events for staff and students to prepare the university for a new era of change and to demonstrate how we can all be active agents of change in ‘practising’ and not just ‘promoting’ race equality.