The Oxford Faculty of Law recently held a panel discussion on ‘Race Equality in Higher Education’ in its efforts to highlight issues of race in the course of Black History Month. The discussion, chaired by Associate Dean for Equality and Diversity, Nicholas Bamforth, reflected both on the progress made in Higher Education in recent years in addressing racial inequalities but also on the remaining barriers that staff and students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds face.

Dr Machilu Zimba, Policy Advisor in the University of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit, started off the discussion by giving an insight into the university’s participation in the national Race Equality Charter. She noted that the Charter provided a valuable framework to identify and critically reflect on barriers faced by BME students as well as staff as it incentivizes universities to continuously engage with BME issues in order to remain in the programme. She noted that, whilst the Charter provides a certain form of accountability and peer review, challenges remain such as the diversification of the staff body, admissions to graduate and postgraduate level, as well as equality in academic publishing.

The second panellist, Professor Iyiola Solanke, Chair of European Union Law and Social Justice within the University of Leeds Law School, too thought that an approach that looks beyond the undergraduate admissions stage is necessary. She added that racism is often reduced to an issue of a small extremist minority, when such analysis would overlook the systemic nature of racial inequalities throughout society. Instead, similarly to the coronavirus, racist structures impact in a structural way, affecting individuals in various forms and to different degrees. This is why, just as we tackle the virus at many different levels, racial inequality too requires similar multi-level-action not only addressing individual behaviour but also environmental factors.

Professor Solanke noted that one area that can be further improved is the issue of security and policing on campus, especially so given the focus of Black Lives Matter on police brutality and accountability. Ensuring that security and disciplinary staff on campus confront potential biases and prejudices is essential to give a sense not only of belonging but trust and empowerment to BME students attending universities. The work does not stop at the admission stage. The same, so Professor Solanke, holds true for the way reports and complaints of racial harassment are handled by institutions in higher education, not only between students but also amongst different Faculty members.

The third panellist, Dr Foluke Adebisi, Senior Lecturer at the Law School in the University of Bristol, agreed that racial inequality needs to be viewed as a pervasive and systemic issue rather than one of isolated incidents. Complementing the suggestions of Dr Zimba and Professor Solanke, she added that a proper assessment of racial inequality requires looking beyond positive action schemes: to make effective change we need to gain a fundamental understanding of the relationship between power, race, and the creation of knowledge. This warrants fundamentally questioning human epistemology and examining how what we teach is still impacted by colonial as well as post-colonial power structures. Using decolonial thought to question the origins of ideals and focus areas prevalent in higher education would allow us to not only properly address the past, but also improve the future and shape the kind of world we want to emerge.  

Throughout the discussion that followed their entry remarks, the three panellists all noted that one barrier to change in higher education is the reluctance to talk about the issue of racism: students are rarely exposed to discussion on racial issues and will often treat it as more of an uncomfortable taboo subject. Professor Solanke also noted that many effective legal tools are often underused, such as positive action which describes measures used to encourage underrepresented students to apply in a merit-based application process. Because many bodies in higher education often lack clarity as to where the difference between legally permitted positive action and unlawful positive discrimination lies, they often do not use available channels effectively due to the fear of legal ramifications.

Dr Zimba noted there is indeed pushback at times because positive action is associated with positive discrimination, and that this needs to be tackled. She suggested that positive action can actually be implemented quite easily with simple measures. One example would be requiring a recruitment process to be stopped where a shortlist does not include a single non-white person, in order to encourage the finding of talent from a variety of different backgrounds. As noted by her, pushing on these issues is especially necessary given University of Oxford’s role in bringing forth future leaders in various fields of life, as students’ experiences at university will shape their biases and the way they impact society.

Dr Adebisi noted that whilst she thinks the law is indeed underused, we should not be afraid do look beyond its limitations. Law cannot substitute conducting research into racial issues to improve the knowledge on which current policies are inevitably based. We need to ensure a deeper understanding of racist structures and their origins to not be confined to either the limitations of the law or our current knowledge and awareness. This is, however, hard to do where institutions do not change the way work and time is allocated to different staff members: where a university’s administration is torn between many issues, such as funding, staff on strike and research commitments, academics who might already be overworked will not be able to do enough. Professor Solanke agreed that any real change needs to go hand in hand with a different workload and resource allocation given that efforts such as decolonizing the curriculum or mentoring BME students simply takes up time that academics do not necessarily have.

The discussion ended on a positive and encouraging note in which all panellists acknowledged that, despite all the remaining barriers and issues, the Black Lives Matter movement created a momentum on which Higher Education can build on, and also led to the highlighting and the creation of resources and materials analysing racial inequalities. To not let this momentum subside, but to continue to push for racial equality, they encourage engagement with these materials, not only focusing on the US but also on the UK’s context. Dr Zimba highlighted the Bodleian’s recently put together reading list. In addition, a reading list compiled by Dr Adebisi can be found on her blog, African Skies. It is to be hoped that the Law Faculty, but also the wider university as well as higher education, in general, can build on the insightful points raised in the discussion which uncovered areas and action points to focus on for the future.

by Richard Avinesh Wagenländer (BA in Jurisprudence, Law 2018 - 2021)