Connected Curriculum

Betterment or Backlash? Racism in UK University History Departments

Looking back on 2018, when the Royal Historical Society report on racial inequalities in UK university History departments was published, it is hard to recover the sense that I held – probably naively, and certainly prematurely – that a space had opened-up where Higher Education could be profoundly re-imagined, if not radically transformed. The then unprecedented University and College Union strikes had grown, through teach-outs and readings groups across campuses of participating institutions, into critiques of the political economy of higher education and debates on the role of the university as an agent of social justice. These currents converged with student radicalism that had been growing through anti-racist campaigns and movements, and with an increased prominence of discussions of racial equality in the public sphere following the Windrush Scandal. The Runnymede Trust’s 2015 Aiming Higher report – and its damning foreword by David Lammy MP – gave renewed impetus for addressing racial equality in universities, stimulating a series of seminars that would become the pathbreaking Dismantling Race in Higher Education edited collection.

For me at least, at that time, engaging with the problems of racial inequality did not feel like “doing diversity work”- as Sara Ahmed would capture it – but instead felt like an extension of my wider activism. I rarely have that feeling these days. In reflecting here on the progress (or lack of it) since this time, I want to advance a historical argument. That argument is that 2018 was a different time; that there is something fundamental that has changed. I think that we are now operating in what we might call a time of ‘backlash’.

The notion that we are now in an era of backlash is one that I have picked up from Christienna Fryar when she came to deliver a keynote lecture for Durham University’s 2023 Black History Month. Her talk was about the care that needs to be taken by historians in retelling histories of Black suffering, and the slow research necessary for doing justice to the lives of folks who appear fleetingly and marginally in hostile archival records. This was work that, she argued, was increasingly hard to do in the target driven, output machines of modern academic departments in the UK, but work that nevertheless remained an ethical obligation in the context of backlash.

Following her talk, I have seen signs of backlash everywhere. I won’t list them all, but two recent incidents are worth outlining. The first, from November 2023, was the revelation that the Government had been maintaining a dossier on academics’ social media posts where these supported transgender rights, Black Lives Matter activism, University strikes or criticised the government. The second, in that same month, was the Minister for University’s demand to UK Research and Innovation that they disband the research council’s equality, diversity and inclusion panel over comments of its members on the Israel-Gaza war.

The tepid or entirely absent response to these encroachments on academic freedom from university leaders has left many colleagues active in anti-racist work feeling justifiably vulnerable. In our discipline, the rise of History as a frontline of a so-called culture war, manifest in new platforms such as History Reclaimed, is indicative of the growing scrutiny on how we teach our subjects, conduct our research, and do our jobs. Through the work of right-leaning think tanks like Civitas, and media engagement with their outputs, engagement with anti-racist work in universities is equated to a lack of professional objectivity or, worse, evidence of “brainwashing”.

To understand backlash and how it brings about change, Derrick Bell’s concept of “interest convergence” is crucial. Bell’s work underscores the permanence and cyclical predictability of racism. Measures to tackle racial inequality happen only at moments when the interests of the authorities who govern institutions converge with those of anti-racist campaigners. Typically, it is when racist practices destabilise or pose a risk to institutions that this convergence occurs. This can cut both ways and anti-racist work can also pose a risk to institutions; the act of exposing racism in an institution can be perceived by those in charge as inflicting damage. This is a risk that agents of backlash seek to mobilise to break the convergence.

If the years around the end of the last decade and the start of this decade marked a high point in convergence of interests between anti-racist campaigners and the interests of the authorities who govern university institutions, what lasting gains have we made? The 2018 Race Report identified three overarching areas of concern regarding racial inequalities: the underrepresentation of Black and Asian staff and students; pervasive experiences of racial harassment; and an unrepresentative, ethnocentric curriculum. To assess the extent to which we can see an improvement in these areas across the sector, and in History departments in particular, I have thought about these problems in three areas. Firstly, have we got a better understanding of the problems? Secondly, have there been positive initiatives taken to address the problems? And thirdly, can we see any evidence of tangible improvement?

On the first, I think that it is clear that the problems are now better understood. Or, perhaps, to put it more accurately, problems that minoritised staff and students have long been confronting in Higher Education are now more fully evidenced. There has been a raft of published reports that have illuminated specific aspects of racism in universities. In May 2019, Universities UK and the National Union of Students produced a report that examined the awarding gap in the sector. It showed a 13% gap between the likelihood of white students obtaining a first or an upper second in their degree classification and that of students from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds. In September of that same year, the Black-led organisation, Leading Routes published its own report which revealed that UK Research and Innovation research councils awarded 1.2% of their PhD studentships to Black or Black Mixed students, meaning that of the total of 19,868 studentships just 30 went to students coming from Black Caribbean backgrounds.

The following month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released its report whose findings were damning. 24% of students from an ethnic minority background had experienced racial harassment on their courses. 20% had experienced a physical attack. Over half the staff who responded to the EHRC in its investigation described being excluded because of their race. More than a quarter had been at the receiving end of jokes, insults, and name-calling. The effects of this were to push minoritised staff and students out of the sector. Around one in twenty students reported leaving their studies because of racial harassment. And three in twenty staff had left their jobs because of it. The Report found that staff and students generally had very little confidence in institutions being able to provide redress for incidents of racial harassment. The Report went on to conclude that universities tended to underestimate the prevalence of racial harassment and had undue confidence in their complaint handling processes.

This Report provoked a response from Universities UK in November 2020 that acknowledged “structural racism” in the sector. Coming from a different quarter of the Higher Education ecology, in 2021 the private university accommodation provider, Unite Students, commissioned the research report on Black students’ experiences in university accommodation. This research found that little had changed since the EHRC report, and that Black students had little confidence in university reporting mechanisms. It also found that more than a quarter of Black students did not have access to culturally relevant services close to where they lived. More than half of the Black students who responded to the survey reported experiencing racist abuse in their accommodation. Two thirds reported that racism had had a detrimental impact on their mental health while in university accommodation.

Doubtless there are more reports that I could have cited, but these few reveal that we now have an unimpeachable evidence base to support a characterisation of the university sector as institutionally racist. This evidence helps us to understand the problems of underrepresentation and harassment as conjoined. The hostile environment for students of colour, particularly Black students, in their accommodation and their classrooms, the lack of targeted financial programmes, the absence of culturally appropriate support, all contribute to producing awarding gaps, gaps that then inhibit these students from progressing in an academic career, should this still be something that appeals to them, where at the postgraduate level, the competition for studentships is already weighted against them. These are interwoven problems that require holistic solutions.

This brings me to what has been done. Here I want to focus on the responses to the 2018 RHS Race Report that were compiled in the follow up Roadmaps to Change documents published in 2019 and 2020, taking particular note of the actions taken by History departments.

The most commonly reported action was that the findings of the Report had fed into reviews of the curriculum. The results of these reviews were not always clear and, as the Report identified, much of this work was going on prior to 2018. If there was a discernible shift in these reviews, it was that the Report seemed to be feeding into a wider conversation around “decolonising the curriculum”. While, again, it was not always explicitly detailed what this entailed, events like away days and training sessions for staff were cited as examples. Sometimes departments created specific new modules where students got to engage with what “decolonising” might mean. Another notable area of activity over the years following the report, has been a mini wave of hires in Black British history. There has been a growth in recruitment in that area, including permanent posts. There has also been a notable expansion in PhD scholarships that are ring-fenced for BME students.

Each of these changes and initiatives represents hours of work, difficult conversations, and careful, administrative negotiation. This work was, at least in my experience, partially made possible by the leverage offered by universities’ stated commitments to racial equality; in other words, this was work made easier by the overarching convergent interests in the sector.

But it is worth highlighting the extent to which these actions have focussed on the curriculum, rather than problems of racial harassment or the stubborn awarding gap. Having done some research into the latter at my own department, the awarding gap between students from Black and Asian backgrounds and white students in their likelihood of attaining first class degree classifications has not diminished, despite the expansion of the curriculum. This shouldn’t be surprising. As Meleisa Ono-George pointed out in her critical response to the Report, reforming the content of our curriculum was never likely to significantly enable students of colour to overcome the everyday hostilities and lack of support to succeed without a deeper transformation of our teaching practices themselves.

So, what has improved for students of colour? Tangible progress is hard to discern. The most recent data on diversity in History departments is from 2022, and the data used in the Report was from 2017. In those five years, there is precious little change. In 2017, 96.1% of History academic staff who were UK nationals were white. By 2022 that figure had fallen by 1.7% to 94.4%. The only humanities subject that is whiter is Classics, and only five other disciplines are worse. The percentage of UK-Asian staff had risen by 0.5% to 1.9%, and the percentage of UK-Black academics has risen by 0.1% from 0.3% to 0.4%. To underscore the low numbers here, this amounts to ten people. When we include non-UK nationals, the number of Black academic historians rises to twenty people.

The data for students is little better, perhaps worse. In 2017, 88.7% of UK domiciled History undergraduate students were white.[1] That figure by 2022 had fallen to 85.9%. The percentage of British Asian students rose from 4% to 4.9% and the percentage of Black British students rose from 2.4% only 0.3% to 2.7%. As with the 2017 data, the percentage of white students increases at taught postgraduate level, and then again at research postgraduate level. At the level of this most advanced degree, the percentage of white British History students was 91.4% in 2017. It has now reduced by 0.2%. Given the overarching demographic change between the 2011 and 2021 UK census, it is possible that the marginal percentage increases in the numbers of UK History students from Black and Asian backgrounds actually represent very little improvement in representation at all.

It might not be fair to seek to find tangible results from the actions identified above over the passage of just over 5 years. But the rate of change should still be a worry. And, moreover, such a narrative of slow progress only holds if one is persuaded that the range of actions currently being implemented are commensurate to the scale of exclusion facing students and staff of colour. And, to further compound this, it only holds if we believe that the context in which anti-racist work in Higher Education takes place is going to continue to be supportive into the future. If the contention that we are now entering a time of backlash is correct, I am sceptical that we will continue to be able to leverage institutional support successfully into the future. In fact, I think it is already more difficult.

If a convergence of interests that brought anti-racist activists in the academy into an uneasy alignment with university leaders at the end of the last decade is corroding, then I think we need to pause and take stock. While the work still evidently needs to be done, I fear that the toll of it will only get heavier in the years to come, and this is work already unevenly distributed. Numerous accounts of the frustrations, additional often invisible workload, and frequent microaggressions that burden academics of colour doing anti-racist work in the university sector have been published in recent years.

Taking my lead from Fryar’s paper, one strategy is to resist the desire for immediate impact and change, to go back to the basics, back to the classroom. Meleisa Ono-George has argued persuasively for a focus on embedding anti-racist pedagogic practice rather than solely investing in overhauling curricular. Through the engaged teaching practice of anti-racist pedagogy, we might build in our seminars the communities that can sustain staff and students of colour through the exclusions of university life, holding a space that recognises everyone’s particular journeys and validates their presence. Afterall, as bell hooks famously wrote in her Teaching to Transgress, “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.”

[1] The AdvanceHE data group the students under ‘Historical and Philosophical Studies’, as the HESA did in 2017, so the category is not precise, but it is consistent across time.

Feature image: Cambridge University Student Protest, Time_for_tea.

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