You might think it would be uncontroversial to argue, as Liz Truss did recently, that ‘we need the equality debate to be led by facts not by fashion’. Yet the reaction to her speech — labelled ‘bonkers’ by rival politicians — suggests otherwise. To see why Truss’s words caused such a stir, look no further than Universities UK (UUK), the collective voice of Britain’s vice-chancellors. In November UUK issued a report, Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education, which aims to institute sweeping changes in universities, led not by facts but by the voguish tenets of critical race theory (CRT).
That’s not just an interpretation of the report, by the way. UUK explicitly announces that ‘This guidance draws on the framework of critical race theory’, an approach which ‘explains that white domination is normalised and therefore seen as natural’. Contrary to how most people think of universities — as liberal, tolerant, inclusive institutions — a CRT perspective allows UUK to ‘know’ that the racism which is ‘endemic in UK society… also pervades higher education’.
On that basis, UUK calls on students to audit their professors’ courses to ensure the ‘representation of diversity within materials used in lectures and tutorials’. In staff training, universities should ‘incorporate the concepts of white privilege and white fragility, white allyship, microaggressions and intersectionality, as well as racialised unconscious bias training’.
UUK urges universities to ‘acknowledge the institutional racism and systemic issues that pervade the entire higher education sector, in all institutions’, but admits that it has ‘no regular data that fully identifies the nature, scale and prevalence of racial harassment in higher education’.
Astonishingly, given the large-scale change it is calling for, UUK did not conduct its own study of the problem it claims to address. Instead, it relied on research published in 2019 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which in turn was farmed out to a private consultancy, IFF Research. As we show in our counter-report, the underpinning research is one-sided and methodologically flawed.
The key focus of the UUK report is racial harassment on university campuses. Here the findings generated by the EHRC’s small-scale study should be treated with caution, but instead the tendency is to generalise wildly on the basis of slim evidence. The Guardian reported last year that the research showed that ‘the equivalent of 60,000 students nationwide’ had reported racist incidents to their university; a fraction of the ‘180,000 students across the UK’ who suffered racial harassment in the first six months of the academic year. Now UUK is seeking to generate more alarmist headlines from the same EHRC report.
Tens of thousands of racist incidents on campuses in the space of a few months would indeed be sensational news, since it is so at odds with most people’s experience of, and ideas about, universities. Yet almost nobody seems to have paused to consider just what a strange picture this is. British universities employ 670,000 staff and teach 2.3 million students annually. In the three-and-a-half-year period September 2015 to March 2019, when some 5 million students passed through the UK’s higher education institutions, the universities surveyed by the EHRC show that approximately 0.01% (559) of their students reported incidents of racial harassment to their universities. Of staff, 0.05% (360) made complaints. While all reported harassment requires serious investigation, these figures can hardly be said to reveal a pervasive problem.
In tacit acknowledgement of this fact, UUK seeks to expand the meaning of racial harassment via the concept of ‘microaggressions’. These are defined as ‘Everyday, subtle and insidious forms and acts of racism that send a denigrating message’, and include saying things like ‘You are so articulate’, or ‘I believe the most qualified person should get the job’. In interpreting such statements as racist microaggressions, context and intent are not seen as relevant. As UUK states, ‘if an incident is perceived as racist by the victim, then it should be treated as such, irrespective of the intention’. UUK also calls on universities to implement ‘bystander training to support staff members and students to call out racism’, and to institute systems of ‘anonymous reporting’.
Any cases of racial discrimination and harassment in universities should of course be dealt with swiftly and seriously, but seeking to inflate the small number of reported incidents through anonymous reporting of ‘microaggressions’ will not help anyone — except managers, who would thereby gain new disciplinary powers.
If UUK is really interested in tackling inequalities in education, there are a number of practical measures it could advance. Improving working conditions and pay for all staff, and narrowing the pay gap between rank-and-file, often casualised, lecturers and overpaid university executives would be a start. For students, alleviating the problems of debt and term-time working, and addressing the socio-economic inequalities that limit access to higher education for young people from working-class backgrounds would also be welcome. Importantly, such measures would not only be of material use, they would also not divide people on the basis of race.
Philip Hammond is Professor of Media & Communications at London South Bank University. The full report from ‘Don’t Divide Us’ is available at: https://dontdivideus.com/response-to-uuk/