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Why do HEIs task diversity leads with solving systemic issues?

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“While it is of utmost importance that universities reflect the demographic diversity of the societies they are supposed to serve, the question of demographic diversity falls short of addressing the question of decolonisation.”

(Icaza and Vázquez, 2018: 115).

When equality, diversity, inclusion work is left to a few good eggs in our universities, there is a problem. Hiring EDI leads will not make your institution less racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic. Equity must be part of how a company hires and makes decisions, and that goes to to the very top of any establishment. From healthcare to policing and education, public and private bodies claim equality, diversity and inclusion is a priority. However, there is a gap between what institutions say, and do.

Diversity officers, equality leads, and roles with “BME” and “BAME” in their titles are blue plasters for what is essentially a tumour. Whilst I recognise these roles need to exist, EDI and race equity should be in the main objectives and KPIs of all universities. Decolonisation needs to run hand-in-hand with diversity work, and whilst universities give lip service to EDI while simultaneously not engaging in decolonial projects, what you’re telling the victims of colonisation is you don’t belong here.

Colonisation, and then its flip, decolonisation, is systemic and far-reaching. To hire an individual (singular) in these roles, often on a part-time basis to tackle systemic problems is both short-sighted and cruel. There is no quick-fix to say, institutional racism, and it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Photo by Leon Ell’ on Unsplash

Having attended conferences ostensibly focused on racism, it is evident another profound challenge to higher education is a reluctance from institutions to talk about race – and to implement race equity as a separate division to generic EDI practice. Under race, we have: whiteness, White Privilege and (race-specific) unconscious bias, as well as identity politics impacting the life experiences of people of colour. What the African-American cultural theorist W. E. B DuBois (1903: 2) called “double consciousness,” and more recently with Afua Hirsch (2018) in Brit(ish).

Universities need to support student campaigns for race equity and diversity, including student union initiatives around decolonisation (and blacktivism) in response to national (and global) narratives, as political activism is one of the movements pushing for a more equal and fair society.

Consistently, Britain’s national response to race issues has swayed from varying degrees of reluctance to negligence and this is no more evident than in the education sector. Britain’s response to discussing its colonial past is what Shashi Tharoor called “historical amnesia” (Independent) and “today’s student movements are confronting universities with their colonial histories […] of segregation […] and the recognition of the universities’ own participation in the modern/colonial order” (Icaza and Vásquez, 2018: 122).

HEIs need to support campaigns, including those around decolonising education (and blacktivism) regardless of their source. Icaza and Vásquez discuss decoloniality as a conduit to seeing “the dynamics of power differences, social exclusion and discrimination” in relation to inequality under the umbrella of race, gender, and socioeconomic deprivation (2018: 113). Whilst their research centres on Amsterdam, contemporary Britain, is also built in the ruins of empire.When White, able-bodied heterosexual male is the default in a heteronormative society, it is safe to presume the same occurs in HE. After all, universities as with all British institutions, are part of society and thus cannot escape the same colonising imperatives.

Elite universities, such as Oxford, have been scrutinised for their part in British colonial history. The Academy was built to exclude people who were not White, rich, male, able-bodied and straight, ensuring that minorities often find themselves scaling the walls into The University.

Student equality, or lack of, can be seen reflected in those teaching them on a day-to-day basis. To feel equal in the classroom, one focal point of conversation is the lack of role models – the deficit of professors in HE to be like, from varied diasporic African and Asian backgrounds.

In the Equality in higher education: statistical report 2018, Advance HE stated only 85 Black professors work at British universities (in relation to over 10,000 White). This statistic is an indictment on the lack of visibility at the very top of academia, and representation needs to extend further than race to also include disability, sexuality and religion. It is about seeing your story in those that have gone through it before, to show the next generation of potential leaders and academics it is possible.

Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) plays Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, a Black woman in institutions (NASA) made for whiteness (Hidden Figures, 20th Century Fox)

Whilst efforts to make universities more inclusive have been implemented through initiatives like decolonising the curriculum this is a drop in the ocean in terms of diversifying the workforce, including senior management teams (Icaza and Vásquez, 2018: 115). To reach the fullest potential of diversity in HE it is essential to have as many nonnormative voices as possible in the decision-making processes. In including them, we can then more openly critique what knowledge is being produced, how it is being produced and what’s being created. How it is implemented directly impacts student equality and how they feel included in their university community:

“The implications of this whiteness and Eurocentrism go beyond history. This state of affairs mediates our whole education experiences considerably, so much so that attempting to study anything outside of the white and Eurocentric requires going the extra mile.”

Ore, 2019: 56

For race equity, especially in a student body as culturally diverse as at Northampton, it is important to consider whether the continuing use of homogeneous groups for minorities, such as BAME [Black Asian Minority Ethnic] inculcates equality or creates further division. Certainly such homogenisation inherently excludes discourses of intersectionality so necessary in ensuring equity. When universities enrol these students, it is imperative to consider if there are ample, appropriate support systems in place – from race equity to working class, sexuality and disability.

Across the sector, the dropout rate of specifically Black students is high, and one would think there would be support prevention systems to reduce the number of drop outs. At UK universities, Black students are 50% more likely to drop out than their Asian colleagues and one in ten Black students drop out, in comparison to 6.9% of all students – according to the University Partnership Programme, Social Market Foundations (Adegoke, 2019: 32-33).

Goldsmith’s Dr Nicola Rollock, for instance, believes not enough is done to investigate the cause and believes there’s a fear of talking about race in the sector:

“My concern is that these issues aren’t look at in any fundamental way: when they are, all black ethnic groups are amalgamated into one mass, and they shouldn’t be. The data doesn’t speak to distinct differences. And there’s also a fear of talking about race. If they’re talking about black and minority ethnic students, race needs to be a fundamental part of the conversation, but I would argue that as a society, and […] within education policy, race is a taboo subject” (Rollock, 2019, quoted in Adegoke, 2019: 34).

Dr Nicola Rollock (

For a university as culturally diverse as Northampton (as far as students are concerned), is it right to put people into homogeneous groups, like BAME? Is there equity in grouping this way? Why are students not born into White Privilege amalgamated into one mass? Why is there a fear of talking about race in classroom but also in wider society? What if they were lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, as well as from the African or Asian continents?

Do HEIs have ample support systems in place – from race, gender to sexuality and disability? Moreover, universities often think it is enough to have more Black people in the building. Emotional labour is not something higher education institutions think about (Adegoke, 2019: 33).

What providers can do is engage with national reports, including the Race Equality Charter (REC) – but also 2017’s Lammy Review, and the 1999 Macpherson Report (both focused on the criminal justice system but no less relevant to universities) – and research into LGBTQ+ experiences in higher education, as shown in Education Beyond the Straight and Narrow by the National Union for Students [NUS].

Where universities see equality, diversity and inclusion work as a legal requirement under the Equality Act (2010), important and vital discussions around ethics and moral duty need to happen as well. Where HEIs often think about the money, there is a human case to be made for students!

Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash

When EDI is seen as an add-on to general practice, it can often be viewed as a “tick-box exercise.” It can frequently have an image of transitioning or adaptation, often describing “their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality” (Ahmed, 2018: 333). Diversity should be the default setting but hiring people with BME, BAME, diversity, equality or inclusion in their title is simply a blue plaster for what is a far-reaching nasty tumour. To do diversity work, you must do decolonial work.

So, really, higher education institutions need to be thinking about how the emotional labour of equality and diversity work impacts their employees, especially women of colour.


Acciari, L (2014). ‘Education Beyond the Straight and Narrow,’, [online]. Available from: [Last accessed 30 December 2019]

Adegoke, Y and Uviebinené, E. (2019). Slay in Your Lane. London: 4th Estate.

Advance HE (2018). ‘Equality in higher education: statistical report 2018,’, [online]. Available from: [Last accessed 30 December 2019]

Ahmed, S. (2018). Rocking the Boat: Women of Colour as Diversity Workers. In: Arday, J., Mirza, S. (eds). Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 331 –348.

Bhopal, Kalwant (2018), ‘The Persistence of White Privilege in Higher Education: Isn’t it Time for Radical Change?,’ Social Sciences Birmingham, [online]. Available from: [Last accessed 30 December 2019]

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Bulman, May (2017) Black students 50% more likely to drop out of university, new figures reveal. Independent [online]. Available from: [Last Accessed: 31st December]

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Icaza, R., Vásquez, R. (2018). Diversity or Decolonisation? In: Bhambra, G. K., Gerbrial, D., Nişancioğlu, K. (eds). Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press, pp. 108 – 128.

Kwakye, C and Ogunbiyi, O. (2019). Taking Up Space. London: Merky Books.

Lawton, Georgina (2018). Why do black students quit university more often than their white peers? The Guardian [online]. Available from: [Last accessed: December 31 2019]

Lodge-Eddo, R. (2017). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury.

Ministry of Justice (2017). The Lammy Review. (Chairperson: David Lammy MP). London: TSO.

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Social Market Foundation with University Partnership Programme (2017). ‘On course for success? Student retention at university,’ [online]. Available from: [Last accessed: 31 December 2019]

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