We expect documentaries to be well-investigated, the material may be partisan, but we would expect film-makers and the editorial gatekeepers to ensure programmes were impartial and well-argued and evidenced. BBC 3’s documentary on alleged institutional racism in universities, and the accompanying article, fall well short of these standards. Read Jenny Marshouse’s and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert’s review below:
The BBC 3 documentary Is Uni Racist?, presented by journalist Linda Adey, followed the experiences of four students. In all cases, the main complaint was that where an incident was reported, the action taken by the relevant university was unsatisfactory. According to Professor David Richardson from Universities UK, this was because British Universities are “systemically racist”. Little else was felt needed by way of elaboration to justify such a sweeping claim.
A request from Linda Adey to UK universities for information about reported incidents of racism had elicited a mixed bag of responses with 11 universities saying that they had received no reports of incidents over a period of five years. Alistair Pringle of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission had carried out random sampling which showed that out of 500 students who had reported witnessing or being subjected to racial incidents, two thirds had not reported this and one person in twenty had left their studies as a result.
There were no facts or figures in the programme to show how this level of attrition compared with general statistics for all students, or to show how many students were satisfied with the actions undertaken by the universities to deal with reported cases. These were just ignored. This was a serious omission and provides a lop-sided picture of the overall position – good for painting a simplistic and dramatic picture, but less suited to understanding a more complex reality. Race may, in some instances retain an influence on student outcomes, but there is also much evidence to support the conclusion that it plays far less of a determining role than in the past.
For example, figures given by Advance HE and analysed in DDU’s own report, show there is a proportional difference of 1.5 percentage points between black and white professors which is read by some as incontrovertible proof of racism. It may be, but to support that conclusion, you would have to consider, among other things, the length of time it usually takes to become a professor and the number of black academics at entry level. At any rate, with the current figures showing that, at 16% of academic staff, black academics are, if anything, over-represented when compared to the fact that ethnic minorities comprise 13.8% of the total population, we can expect levels of black professors to rise in line with increasing number of black academics entry levels in due course.
Linda Adey, however, felt there was a mismatch between the perception that there was a lot of racism and the apparent low level of reporting. No doubt a consideration of empirical evidence would not sway her from her belief, or from finding individual cases of students to interview who stated that they had no confidence that their universities would pursue reported incidents.
From the accompanying article, it is hard to discern if Zac Adan was more aggrieved by the initial incident, or the fact that he was told that his complaint would be dealt with after four days, and that no-one spoke with him. His complaint was expedited when he posted a recording of the incident. Melanie Onovo’s complaint was about a student making a joke about George Floyd’s death, and the fact that no apology was forthcoming. Gracie Oddie-James, who complained that a man singing a Notorious B.I.G. song had directed the n-word at her, and Natasha Chilambo complained about a play she thought to be racist where a black lecturer was portrayed by a white actor wearing blackface.
Universities, like society at large, contains a fair number of individuals who sometimes behave inappropriately, unfairly, offensively and sometimes with race-based prejudice. But there was no evidence that universities didn’t attempt to deal with reported incidents or lacked disciplinary processes. In Zac Adan’s case the university had dismissed the security guards who had manhandled him, mistakenly thinking he was a drug dealer. The four cases show that there is certainly room for improving complaints procedures and communication – not unlike customer services in other businesses, which sadly is the dominant contemporary model of education. But they do not suggest, still less prove, that universities as an institution, are systematically racist.
Such a serious claim requires a higher bar of evidential support to show that some standard or practice, in all universities, was directly or indirectly disadvantaging some students only because of their skin colour. Anyone who watched Steve McQueen’s excellent film about the trial, in 1970, of the Mangrove Nine will know what institutional and systemic racism looks like, and also how socio-ethical norms have changed. Upsetting as some of these incidents were for these students, and maybe compounded by poor procedures, a collection of individual incidents does not a system make.
Linda Adey’s says she feels that fear of reprisals, formal or informal, is what accounts for any paucity of empirical evidence. But that is at odds with, firstly, the expanding number of ethnic minority students entering universities (why would any non-white person go if they were such racist places?). Secondly, in the words of the authors of the DDU Report:
of the 1,009 students surveyed by the EHRC, 526 (52% of the sample) were ethnic minorities, which amounts to 0.1% of the total UK ethnic minority student population. That is quite a small sample, but, when statistically extrapolated, these numbers generate the shocking figures used in media report which now, in turn, drive UUK’s directives to university leaders.
Far from universities doing nothing about racism, anti-racism, through new regulatory bodies like the Race Equality Charter, has become the motivating force for serious changes in academic practical and intellectual norms which are having negative effects on academic freedom and making knowledge the servant of activism rather than truth-seeking.
Worryingly, Linda Adey’s interpretation of her interviewees’ complaints invite us to conclude that universities need to extend their role from deciding sanctions for individual acts of racism or prejudice to monitoring and policing students personal and informal interactions. This is not a strategy conducive to fostering the resilience and tolerance needed to participate fully in either academic life or social life in general.
Given that it is a publicly funded institution, the BBC should make more effort to ensure that its programmes look at controversial issues such as alleged racism in universities in more depth, and expect journalists to probe in the search for greater breadth and rigour than was evident in either the programme or the accompanying article.