Read the DDU’s full report on the Race Equality Charter here.
Record numbers of UK students are starting university this month. Like generations of young people before them, they will no doubt arrive with feelings of excitement and anticipation, expecting to encounter not only a stimulating intellectual environment but also a convivial one, where they will meet new people from different places and backgrounds, and make new friends for life. Even with some lingering Covid restrictions, universities still promise an enjoyable ‘student experience’ alongside the more sober pleasures of higher learning.
According to the influential higher education organisation Advance HE, however, undergraduates will be entering structurally racist institutions, where they will encounter oppressive, colonial systems of knowledge. And rather than simply enjoying the friendly, party atmosphere traditionally associated with freshers’ week, students will either need to check their ‘white privilege’ or to be on guard for racial ‘micro-aggressions’.
This dispiriting view of universities is currently being institutionalised through the Race Equality Charter (REC), Advance HE’s scheme for universities to adopt policies and procedures that will supposedly demonstrate their efforts to be less institutionally racist. ‘Less racist’, rather than just ‘not racist’, because the implicit assumption of the REC framework is that they will inevitably remain at least a bit racist: it is possible to achieve bronze or silver Charter status, but there is no gold level. UK Vice Chancellors are already promoting the idea that the organisations they lead are institutionally racist. The REC offers a badge to ‘prove’ that they are taking steps to address this.
It might seem tempting to dismiss the Race Equality Charter as just another bureaucratic make-work scheme of the sort that already plagues UK higher education. Yet the approach it embodies is having real, pernicious effects. Take the aforementioned micro-aggressions, for example. Earlier this year Cambridge dons successfully pushed back against their university’s adoption of a list of micro-aggressions (including raising an eyebrow at a black student) and an associated snitching scheme. The trend, though, is the other way: speech codes and reporting mechanisms are proliferating. Advance HE wants to formalise procedures for dealing with perceived snubs and slights, and to promote the policing of language on campus.
Of course, it is true that racism still exists in British society, and universities are not immune from it. But it is also true that Britain and its universities are more tolerant, equal and accepting than ever. Any instances of racial harassment should be challenged and dealt with, but the capacious category of ‘micro-aggressions’ has little to do with addressing the (infrequent) instances of racial discrimination in UK higher education. Rather, it encourages people to reinterpret ordinary interactions through the prism of race, tainting everyday exchanges with suspicion and mistrust. Regardless of their socio-economic background, white students are to be told that they are privileged by virtue of their skin colour, while their black peers are encouraged to view themselves as perpetual victims.
Advance HE’s framework is steeped in contemporary identity politics, and presents the contentious and contested ideas of critical race theory as if they were settled matters of fact. The institutionalisation of such ideas in universities is a dangerous development. Of course, if academics want to ‘decolonise’ their curricula, or to teach about intersectionality and other ideas associated with critical race theory they should of be free to do so. But the official adoption of one particular understanding of racism as an approved credo is a completely different matter. Incorporating controversial or challenging ideas into academic research and teaching is entirely appropriate because the unhindered and open-ended pursuit of knowledge is the vital purpose of the university, as the principle of academic freedom recognises. For the same reason, it is utterly inappropriate to enshrine certain ideas as inviolable dogma. To do so rules out dissent and questioning as illegitimate.
Yet that is precisely what is happening in our universities today. A particular understanding of race and racism is being entrenched via institutional values statements and training programmes. Such initiatives almost never present a range of views — or even acknowledge that there might be legitimate disagreements and heterodox ideas and about what constitutes anti-racism. Official ‘equality and diversity’ reading lists, for example, feature authors such as Ibram X. Kendi or Ta-Nehisi Coates who are sympathetic to critical race theory, but never include writers such as Glenn Loury or Coleman Hughes, who are critical of it.
Previous generations of anti-colonial and anti-racist campaigners fighting for equal rights and freedoms espoused the universalist, humanist principles associated with the Enlightenment — and achieved enormous progress in pressing society to live up to those ideals. Yet now, self-styled anti-racists reject the ‘colour-blind’ approach exemplified by Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to judge people by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin.
Instead, the Race Equality Charter institutionalises racial thinking. Its endorsement of ‘decolonisation’ asks us to judge knowledge and curricula based on race. Its fixation with ‘micro-aggressions’ encourages us to see normal interactions as potentially problematic. Its advocacy of critical race theory and ‘white privilege’ understands skin colour as inexorably determining our life chances. And by mandating a particular approach to race and racism at an institutional level, it infringes the academic freedom and freedom of speech of those — lecturers, students or support staff — who take a different view.
Don’t Divide Us has developed a critique of Advance HE’s Charter, which will be launched with an online debate on 21 September. It includes a set of counter-proposals for how universities could uphold academic freedom, free speech, equality and unity — and help make higher education the congenial and open-minded experience people expect it to be. If you’d like to join that discussion, click here to register.
Philip Hammond is Visiting Professor of Media & Communications at London South Bank University.