MY UNIVERSITY PAYS LIP SERVICE TO EQUALITY AND DIVERSITY
Universities trot out BME staff for photos in their prospectuses, but when it comes to promotions, we are left at the end of the queue.
I am a member of my university’s BME staff group. Over the years, it has changed from a forum for us to discuss issues of racism, representation, and discrimination, to a co-opted showpiece for the university to show that it is doing its bit towards supporting equality.
Many of us stopped attending meetings when we realised what this new incarnation meant.
Our current BME staff tick lots of boxes for the university: we appear in the university’s annual reports, and are strewn across the website when the imperatives of equality and diversity call. Our meetings are minuted by an equality and diversity officer, and reported back through the administrative channels.
My university is a champion of equality and diversity. Or, not.
Beneath the glossy image is another side to working in a leading Russell Group university. Elite institutions are bolstered by exclusive notions of belonging and identity. Several BME colleagues have commented on how the equality and diversity agenda has forced racism to take on more subtle forms. These are difficult to challenge because the university has “covered itself” by new legislation and policies.
The problems facing BME staff who want to challenge discrimination within this bureaucratically-managed, equalities environment is highlighted in the Equality Challenge Unit’s 2011 report. It says BME staff face a race penalty in terms of progress and promotion. Some feel there are too many policies and not enough action around equality and diversity issues. The report says this is why people start to disengage from the issue.
This bureaucratisation of equalities has resulted in what I would argue is a white-washed, bureaucratic, racism. It has provided individuals in key management positions with tools of monitoring and legitimisation – through the equality and diversity policies.
While the subjective judgements of middle managers regulate the valves at each of the bottlenecks in the university hierarchy, I have watched a number of contradictory processes in academic appointments take place.
For instance, the competition to be at the top of the research league tables has led many institutions to make chair-level appointments without proper selection processes or interviews. In several cases, this has been done mysteriously by a wave of a magic wand from above, while existing staff on the ground are expected to continue to jump through hoops set higher and higher by an ever more stringent system of managerial career development.
On the lower playing field, policies to highlight the university’s commitment to equality and diversity serve to manage the workforce, while on the upper playing field, new members of staff arrive like footballers being traded for negotiated salaries in the premier league to build a more competitive team. This is certainly not a good indication of an institution’s commitment to equality and diversity processes.
A UCU (2009) survey, which found almost half of all black staff members have experienced racism or discrimination in the workplace, showed how racism takes on a number of different forms.
One BME colleague, who was declined promotion, was told to reapply next year once s/he had a more “mainstream” publications record, among other things. S/he was given advice which was “generic” and dismissive of different audiences of academic outputs.
In the same academic year, a high-flier appointment in the same faculty was made, bringing in a new member of staff with arguably an ethically dubious far right-sympathising research trajectory, showing a complete failure of the university’s equality and diversity agenda.
As a lecturer working in a social science department in a large Russell Group university, I am continually perplexed by the lack of reflexivity shown by colleagues in the evolving university work environment.
Even those colleagues I once viewed as having left-wing, critical, if not vaguely liberal analyses of the world (at least in their rhetoric towards research and teaching), are increasingly taking the plunge into the abyss for the imperatives of careerism.
Let’s just say that Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, and Franz Fanon are very much absent from how academics are currently engaging with the managerialism of corporate higher education institutional cultures.
The current buzzwords of social responsibility, equality and diversity, widening participation, impact, and knowledge transfer are all terms which have been foisted upon the privatised higher education sector to show that it is not merely looking to the sky but also to the ground upon which it stands.
If equality and diversity were really a concern for universities, the institutional cultures of so many of our universities would be expounding the value of equalities on an ideological level. However, for now, we will have to endure the bureaucratic managerialism of equalities through the bottleneck approach.