The persistence of white privilege in higher education: isn’t it time for radical change?

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By Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice
Centre for Research in Race and Education, University of Birmingham


Yesterday it was reported in The Guardian that Oxford University has yet again failed to address issues of diversity and inclusion in terms of its student intake. The Guardian reports that one in four Oxford colleges failed to admit one single black British student each year between 2015 and 2017. Not even one single black British student, realistically how can that be the case? White British applicants were twice as likely to be admitted on to undergraduate courses compared to their black British peers (24% compared to 12%)

But none of this is new, there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that racism and racist practices continue to exist in higher education institutions. There is ample evidence to suggest that black and minority ethnic (BME) students remain disadvantaged in higher education; they are less likely to attend elite and Russell Group universities, less likely to gain a 2:1 or first class degree and are more likely to drop out of university than their peers. A key factor that many students discuss is their experiences of racism, both from their peers and from staff.

On the one hand, universities position themselves as bastions of equality and diversity, liberal in their outlook and at the forefront of instigating change in their contributions to knowledge and adding to the experiences of students. Yet, on the other hand, they fail to represent the communities they serve; they continue to be dominated by those from white, middle class backgrounds. Recent evidence suggests that UK BME staff are under- represented in the highest contract levels and over represented in the lowest making up only 1.6% of heads of institutions and only 2.9% working as senior managers and directors (ECU, 2017). Furthermore there are only 80 black professors in the UK compared to 13295 who are white (ECU, 2017).

In my new book, White Privilege: the myth of a post-racial society, I suggest that radical change is needed in higher education to support black and minority ethnic students. The UK government should develop a specific policy that addresses inequalities in the application process by introducing name-blind applications for universities. There is ample evidence to suggest that job applicants with non-Eurocentric names are disadvantaged in securing interviews and this may also be the case when students apply for different universities. Introducing name-blind applications would address implicit bias in the university application process. In a more radical measure if universities are to address racism and white privilege – particularly Oxbridge – they must introduce a quota system to admit a percentage of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds per year. They must develop specific outreach programmes which target poor postcodes and under performing schools to identify and support the brightest students to ensure they are able to make successful applications to Oxbridge and elite Russell Group universities. The most successful students would be awarded bursaries and scholarships to enable them to attend. I am not suggesting a lowering of standards, in fact an inclusive approach would raise standards at such institutions.

Too many institutions invest heavily in delivering narratives of their commitment to social justice rather than addressing actual problems. If universities are serious about addressing inequalities, they must implement transparent policies where all students, regardless of their ethnic background can benefit from their experiences at university.


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