A radical shift in policy and practice is taking place in U.K. Higher Education. Higher education institutions and UKRI Research Councils are now advertising student opportunities with race in the eligibility criteria. To be eligible for such schemes, students must meet a requirement that is based on the immutable characteristic of race. Not socioeconomic status. Not first-generation university student status. These schemes target students who are black (or mixed with black), as in the case of one UKRI student research placement scheme, which states the below eligibility criteria:
These awards are open solely to Black British students (Black or Black British African, Black or Black British Caribbean, Black or Black British other or Mixed Black or Black British). Applicants will self-identify and sign a disclaimer to the effect that the information they provide is correct.
Many will question whether such blatant racial discrimination can be legal, and that needs to be challenged. But I’ve been thinking about this from another angle. The implications of race requirements on student opportunities are not abstract. No doubt some individuals will benefit from such opportunities. But has due consideration been given to some of the issues and implications of such a change in practice?
Race eligibility requirements necessarily imply that being black (or being mixed-race with black) is a disadvantage, and that those who fall into this racial category require extra support and opportunities – regardless of socioeconomic circumstances. While some people believe this (and are entitled to), others do not and would strongly contest such an assertion. Until recently, this was always just a view held by some people. But the practice of race eligibility requirements on opportunities entails that this view is correct and imposes it on students.
There are some obvious issues with using race in eligibility criteria. Not all students (even those the opportunities are aimed at) will welcome them. Some students might find it stigmatising, and some might prefer to be in fair competition with all their peers – not just ones of the same racial background. And some students will feel instinctively uncomfortable about the use of race in eligibility criteria, as they do not routinely consider race or think of themselves or others in terms of racial categories with social significance. That’s certainly how I feel about it.
Race eligibility requirements also present challenges for families. In the case of some families (such as my own), one sibling (Student A) would be eligible whereas another sibling (Student B) would not – as one is mixed-race and the other is white. And this is despite them having had the same upbringing and the same access to social and material resources. This makes no sense, and will be very uncomfortable for the family involved. Not all families will welcome race requirements on student opportunities, and nor should they.
Now extend the family situation to peer groups, schools, other educational settings and communities. Britain is a diverse country. I know plenty of students from less affluent backgrounds who would be ineligible for such opportunities because of their race. We now have a situation where some students in a year group can apply for a specific research placement or funding, but other students in the same year group cannot – because their skin is lighter. So then, race requirements for student opportunities can be seen as grossly unfair and even racist.
Perhaps differential treatment based on race isn’t such a problem if people of different races live in separate spaces and never interact. But that isn’t Britain. Mixed-race is one of the fastest growing demographics in Britain, which says something very positive about this country. But I am concerned about how race requirements on opportunities might affect attitudes and beliefs about race going forward, and stoke racial tension – moving the country backwards instead of forward.
I do not support race requirements for education and training opportunities in the U.K. under any circumstances, because they are inevitably discriminatory and divisive and frequently miss their target of addressing unfairness. I believe a better approach is to improve opportunities and educational prospects in areas of socioeconomic deprivation (a better proxy of disadvantage than race) – that is, if the goal is to widen participation and benefit society as a whole. This might disproportionately benefit those from some racial backgrounds – if more people from those racial backgrounds live in deprived areas. And when race-based discrimination does occur in higher education institutions, this must be taken seriously and dealt with by the law. We must strive for equality of opportunity.
Higher education institutions and UKRI Research Councils (informed and guided by ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’) are choosing the path of race requirements for some student opportunities. For those of us who are concerned by this, here are some questions we might ask our politicians and policymakers:
- Have students and the wider public been surveyed about how comfortable they are with the use of racial categories as eligibility criteria for certain opportunities, or whether they would prefer an emphasis on socioeconomic background (regardless of race)?
- Have the possible consequences been considered of such policies on community cohesion and on attitudes toward different racial groups, especially in areas with less opportunity?
- Has research been conducted to provide an estimate of how many eligible students may be excluded from such opportunities because they do not wish to disclose their racial background or simply will not apply because the criteria include race?
- Is there high-quality evidence that targeting individuals by race rather than by socioeconomic status is a more successful strategy for recruiting and retaining first-generation university students?