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HEi-think: How can we make not break BME leaders in HE?

While higher education is making progress on widening access to Black and Minority Ethnic students, it still has a long way to go towards creating equal leadership opportunities for BME staff, according to a new paper published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education from Dr Gurnam Singh, Principal Lecturer in Social Work and Dr Josephine Kwhali, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, both at Coventry University.


One of the great success stories of UK higher education over the past 20 years is the dramatic increase in student participation rates.

We have moved from an elite to a mass higher education system. Indeed, in relation to Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students, current estimates suggest that if anything are ‘over-represented’ in relation to their proportion of the population, though in relation to ‘top rated’ research intensive institutions there is still a significant deficit, particularly in relation to Black Caribbean students.

Along with the issue of uneven recruitment and participation, another concern is related to the worrying evidence that on average BME students are significantly less likely to get a ‘good degree’ (2:1 or 1st) than white students.

Though the BME student experience has rightly become the focus of attention amongst researchers, policy makers and HE leaders, this has not been the case in relation to the BME leadership in higher education, and it is this that our new paper, Black and Minority Ethnic People in Higher Education Leadership: ‘Race’, Racism and Higher Education Leadership: How can we make not break BME leaders?, seeks to address. It focuses primarily on the UK, but draws on the US experience, to offers a critical analysis of the participation of black and minority ethnic (BME) people in higher education leadership.

Based primarily on existing data, the paper maps the BME experience of HE more generally but also leadership in particular. A key question that is addressed is the possible  consequences for universities that fail to recruit and retain BME people in leadership roles, particularly in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive HE environment. And perhaps most importantly, what actions and strategies in policy and practice can be developed and deployed to enable positive change to take place?

The paper does not seek to offer a systematic or ‘neutral’ review of the literature, but rather to provoke HEIs to engage in critical reflection of their own experiences of and commitments to BME leadership. Through uncompromising language it draws attention to emerging public debate about ongoing concerns about deficits in race equality based in the sector as a whole.

Should it matter what colour your lecturer or professor is? Should it matter if the head of department, head of research or for that matter, the senior management team is black, Asian, white, male or female? In an ideal world  perhaps it should not. However, we live in a world that is far from ideal. It is a world in which rationality is an aspiration rather than absolute reality. And so distortions of human capabilities and deficits that have been built up over the years, continue to persist modern institutions such as HEIs.

As well as offering an historical perspective, the paper highlights barriers that BME staff experience in HE, of the sense of marginalisation and invisibility on the one hand, but constant surveillance on the other. It shows where wider societal radicalised stereotypes about Black and Asian people are being reproduced, albeit in much more subtle ways, within the universities. Amongst other things, this can lead to the devaluing of the scholarship of BME staff who, either through design or because of the kinds of roles they are ‘allowed’ to occupy (as ‘ethnic specialists’), will focus on issues related to ‘race’ and social justice. Confidence may be eroded by the requirement to justify their existence almost on a daily place, not only to their superiors, but peers, students and subordinates.

Though the paper is uncompromising in its critique of the sector as a whole, it offer a wide range of realisable action strategies for change. Along with other initiatives, such as the Race Equality Charter Mark and internal and external quality assurance mechanisms, not to mention the power of the consumers of HE, there is room for optimism that the sector can face the challenge.

This will mean much more mainstreaming of diversity and equality policies, not only as a moral imperative and legal requirement, but equally importantly as a key to the economic success of universities. To limit ones human resource potential to a small demographic is both wrong and foolish.


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