VIRTUE SIGNALLING MATTERS
Much like a number of ‘brands’, including fashion labels, supermarkets and tech companies, Lancaster University’s social media accounts took part in ‘Black Out Tuesday’ on 2 June. The following day, the University’s Instagram account featured a series of images featuring slogans beginning with ‘What now?’, followed by slogans like ‘Support’ and ‘Educate’ and a few details of what the University is supposedly doing to support its black community (https://www.instagram.com/p/CA-nUaWgvkO/).
Warm words are always nice, but do little to address the real and sometimes shocking inequalities that currently exist at the University. While we are reminded every March of the University’s continuing failure to effectively tackle its gender pay gap (subtexts passim), things have been very quiet around the statistics relating to ethnicity at Lancaster. According to the most recent HESA data available from 18/19 (see https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/table-2), just over 10% of staff at Lancaster were BAME. Black colleagues made up just over 1% of the total. At senior levels, the figures look even worse: There were no black professors at Lancaster University in 18/19 according to the HESA data, and around 4% of professors overall were BAME. In the absence of Lancaster and other institutions publishing information about their ethnicity pay gaps alongside gender pay gaps, we are unfortunately left with a somewhat uncertain picture, but a 2019 report by the UCU (https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10360/Black-academic-staff-face-double-whammy-in-promotion-and-pay-stakes) found that black academic staff are paid on average 14% less than white academic staff.
Returning to the University’s Instagram feed, one of the posts raised a few eyebrows in the subtext warehouse, not to mention among members of Lancaster University’s Race Equality Network (REN): ‘Unite. Staff and students can unite through the LU Race Equality Network to share, campaign and support one another.’ As the open letter sent to the VC by the REN (see below) states, the previous VC promised in 2016 as part of the EDI Strategic Vision 2020 that Lancaster would sign up to the Race Equality Charter (REC) by 2017 with an eye to accreditation by 2020. It appears that nothing at all has been done about this since then.
It may be tempting to consider this a problem not experienced in our leafy, progressive climes, but Lancaster is by no means immune to racial harassment and discrimination. Take 2018, which brought us the Snow Sports Society white t-shirt scandal and controversial suspension of the black BME Officer who went to the press with details (see subtext 183), instances of swastikas daubed on office doors (see subtext 166) and the charming emergence of a fascist student society that disrupted lectures both public (see subtext 173) and academic (see subtext 176).
The HE environment can be at best negligent, and at worst actively hostile, for black academics and students. Recently the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory has been used on Twitter and other platforms by black academics and students from around the world to highlight the many, many different forms of discrimination and abuse they have encountered at universities. And this is where we return to the University’s virtue signalling versus a lack of concrete action and commitment to real change: there is no point putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on social media, if the University’s actions suggest that they don’t, when it counts.
OPEN LETTER TO THE VC
Dear Andy Schofield,
We hope you are well and settling into the new role at Lancaster. A turbulent time to start.
We are writing regarding your inclusivity statement of 12 June. From the Lancaster University Race Equality Network’s (https://www.luren.org.uk) perspective, it was certainly good to hear of the University’s abhorrence of racism from the top. It was equally important to hear an acknowledgement of the dearth of activity thus far in attempting to address race equality at Lancaster. In the current moment this lack of action appears ever more stark.
Your statement referred to admissions criteria and representation in the Lancaster community, both key, yet the shocking race pay and attainment gaps also require attention. What was notably absent from your statement was any reference to decolonising Lancaster curricula. Unfortunately you are not alone in your reluctance (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/only-fifth-of-uk-universities-have-said-they-will-decolonise-curriculum). Yet decolonising work, including both specifically addressing curricula and more systematically interrogating and modifying practices in relation to student/staff recruitment, engagement, retention and attainment, has long been considered central to addressing race equality at all levels of education. Such work is currently being carried out by staff and students at Lancaster without Senior Management support, financial or otherwise.
If as you say you are committed to listening and learning, we hope you will take some time to listen to students from Lancaster University’s Why Is My Curriculum White? campaign, speaking at Decolonise UoK – Stories of Unbelonging (https://youtu.be/irkeT2aalIE), an event run by the University of Kent in March this year. These are our students’ lived experiences. They need to be heard.
We note also your commitment to seeing the University sign up to the Race Equality Charter, ‘and all that this entails’ by which, we presume, you refer to applying for Bronze Accreditation within 3 years of becoming a member. Having been promised this before in the EDI Strategic Vision 2020 (https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/edi/strategic-vision-2020/) you will forgive us if we do not wait with bated breath. LUREN understands that a feasibility study is currently ongoing to identify whether the University can fulfil its commitment to race equality without becoming a member. LUREN is clear that REC membership and accreditation by 2025 is vital if Lancaster is to fulfil its commitments to race equality, and concrete move in the right direction would be the establishment of a Self-Assessment Team and the appointment of a dedicated member of staff with relevant experience.
Race, as a protected characteristic, has long been ignored at Lancaster University, and our attempts to engage Senior Management in the experiences of staff and students from diverse ethnic backgrounds has fallen on deaf ears. But the public consciousness is shifting: Black Lives Matter. Prioritising the education, experience and wellbeing of staff and students is long overdue, but right now institutions, particularly HE institutions, are coming under the microscope. Empty words of commitment are considered simply insufficient (https://twitter.com/divanificent/status/1267746578615480323?s=20). What is required right now is action. We have attached the report by Sofia Akel (https://tinyurl.com/yc6zbocd) from 2018 outlining the situation at Lancaster specifically alongside recommendations. The REC, too, comes with an inbuilt set of requirements and recommendations. As David Lammy so eloquently put it on Radio 4 yesterday (https://tinyurl.com/ya3xtchp), instead of another review commission (or in Lancaster’s case a feasibility study) – implement them.
We wrote to Maria [Piacentini] regarding the suitability of a donation by the University to the Black Cultural Archives (https://blackculturalarchives.org), but have not heard anything further. This would be a good first step in demonstrating the University’s ‘commitment’ to race equality to your staff and students.
We are hopeful that your leadership represents a fresh start to race equality work at Lancaster University. We are tired, and angry, and disappointed. But we are also hopeful. We have every confidence that you will fulfil your responsibility to initiate action, given the broader mainstream narratives of racism in the UK right now. Lancaster has a dubious history of slave trading (https://tinyurl.com/y83n7wqt) but our past does not have to reflect our future. The University has the potential to become a leading light in HEI race equality. We hope that you will see fit to make it happen.
We look forward to hearing from you.
The LU Race Equality Network
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