Antiracism, Development & Training, HigherEd, Inclusivity

Modern slavery in UK HEIs

Racist practices to eliminate racism – the new elephant in the room

When slavery was abolished in the ex-British colonies in the 19th century, it was a relief and a ray of hope for the countless slaves whose families had lost their lives while making a run for freedom or standing up to demand a decent way of living for all slaves. But the current generation is yet to find relief from modern slavery.

Abolition of slavery in the ex-British colonies in the 19th century was a relief and a ray of hope for the countless slaves. But the current generation is yet to find relief from modern slavery.

This post is being written and published to commemorate the Abolition of Slavery in Mauritius. To fully understand the context of this post, I request readers to shed their known definition of slavery and to acknowledge and recognise the NEW elephant in the room. As a POC within the UK HE sector, there is so much that I have witnessed and spoken about, especially when it comes to the racist practices in place to alleviate racism in UK HEIs, but I am yet to see radical changes. HEIs are failing to recognise the obvious since most people are interpreting modern ‘slavery’ in its known historical meaning.

When George Floyd died, most sectors went on a spree of adding an anti-racism agenda to their organisational objectives. Subsequently, what many HEIs witnessed, was a race for creating Race Equality Charters, promoting BAME staff networks, applying for funds to work on antiracism policies, promoting/hiring POC female staffs, among a lost list of measures to project an antiracist image of their institutions. It was easier said than done, particularly in UK HEIs which already thrive on unhealthy working hours and habits. Sadly, POC staff were, and still are, exploited to reach these EDI agendas – exploitation of their experience, knowledge, and time. 

In the last few years, there was a hike in the number of vacancies around Diversity & Equality officers. At the time of writing this post (19th Jan 2022), jobs.ac.uk advertised 365 vacancies for Equality & Diversity roles in the professional services and 59 similar roles with line/senior management responsibilities, all within UK & Irish HEIs. These exclude academic roles, such as, lecturers on E&D.  There were also 5 administrative vacancies and 1 senior management vacancy advertised for new posts in UK FE colleges.

Sadly, there is a huge misunderstanding that tackling racism within an institution is a one-person or one-team job – that is that of the E&D officers and team only. Any POC not part of this team is in fact being exploited freely to contribute to their organisation’s antiracist agenda. In this post, two such examples are highlighted.

Applying and meeting REC agenda – Although the main responsibilities to deliver on this rest upon the E&D team (and potentially the one and only POC staff in senior management), going for such an award involves countless meetings for consultations, feedback, and improvement with POC staff at all levels across all departments.  Needless to say, work allocations for such key contributions are almost non-existent. POC staff end up working longer hours to make suggestions and provide meaningful feedback on working documents at all stages, as they hope that there will be relief from any positive changes, however small that might be. These extra hours are very rarely compensated. Instead, it is often argued that all POC staff involved in the process have put themselves forth as “volunteers”. Ultimately, what we see is a set of racist practices put in place while trying to resolve an already racist work environment.

Unable to engage with BAME Staff networks – This is something that many HEIs need to significantly improve. Here is a question for you all readers to ponder on: does your institution allocate hours for POC staff to join and participate in the internal BAME staff network? We are looking at racism here, but the same question needs to be asked for all E&D Staff Networks. Generally, what we find is that staff must fit these meetings and activities around their own work. It is a known fact that most staff in UK HEIs are overworked, which obviously leaves little choice for POC staff when it comes to completing the tasks allocated by their line managers versus attending and participating in events organised by their BAME Staff Network. Low attendance and engagement in the BAME Staff Network is usually a key sign of this problem – but this problem is over overlooked and it is often argued that senior management cannot force all POC to join and engage in the BAME Staff Network. POC staff would if they are genuinely given the opportunity to do so.

Action for you: This post is kept short, bearing in mind that readers need to take time to ponder on the issues raised and questions asked. Whether you are a POC or inspire to be an ally, if you wish to even slightly decrease workplace racism within UK HE, it is important to go back and observe the processes in place in your own institution. Do stay tuned, for a follow-up on this, with some more petrifying realities around racism within the sector and how we can all take baby steps with significant changes in the right direction.

Since you have reached the bottom of this blog post, you might find a related post equally insightful. Happy reading below 🔻

Equity analysis of 6 job blurbs – podcast for TalkingHE“. The podcast was recorded on 22nd Dec 2021, at the time of the recording, all the job adverts discussed in this podcast were live, with closing dates set in the future. The post highlights the discrimination in job adverts.

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