We return after Easter to a University term like none before, with a strange mix of continuing to actively respond to the COVID-19 crisis, alongside work to maintain activity that was already in train before our lives were so disrupted. Over the last few weeks, as staff and students have impressively demonstrated their agility and collegiality in our rapid move to working remotely and online, it has also become clear how critical it is that we retain our focus on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and the commitment to our University values. By being truly inclusive and capitalising on the diversity of our University community, we will be able to draw on the very best ideas and are more likely to successfully navigate the challenging times ahead.
Situations like COVID-19 shine a spotlight on inequality and its impact on our University community – whether we consider the additional challenges faced by disabled staff and students in the rapid move to online working; the impact for an LGBTQ+ community member of suddenly having to spend more time in an environment that may be more hostile towards them; the difficulty in working in a remote setting for those from less affluent socio-economic backgrounds; or the uneven impact of care responsibilities on women.
However, perhaps the most stark and distressing statistics that have emerged in recent weeks reflect the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the BME community. This week, we held a meeting of our Race Equality Charter SAT, and discussed some of the priority issues that emerged that are affecting our BME students and staff now, and will continue to have an impact in the future.
Race Equality Charter submission
We had originally intended to submit our Race Equality Charter (REC) in July 2020. We are now pushing back this date of submission slightly, to allow those members of the REC Self Assessment Team (SAT) whose roles have demanded that they focus on supporting the rapid changes in working to have the time to retain their commitment to REC but also to deliver against their main roles. Our discussion at the REC SAT confirmed that COVID-19 is in fact highlighting and magnifying existing inequalities and disadvantage, and that these inequalities will widen if we fail to retain attention to tackling these issues now.
Many of our international students, unable to return to their home countries are particularly isolated, anxious about families far away. We know that, sadly, some members of our University community have been subject to personal, verbal abuse, as a result of their ethnicity. The University does not tolerate racism or harassment of any type, and it is distressing to hear reports of such incidents. Staff and students of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds should be outraged by this. We are all in this together. The illustration shown here, produced by one of our Health Sciences students, Mun Teng Kwoh as part of her work towards the Nottingham Advantage Award, denotes the painful experience of harassment in a manner more powerful and articulate than I could ever hope to achieve.
The REC SAT also discussed that many of our BME students are also from a Widening Participation background, and therefore may face particular challenge in effectively being able to engage with the rapid switch to fully online learning.
A briefing document led by Dr Gurnam Singh, Associate Professor of Equity of Attainment at Coventry University, has also highlighted these issues, stating that: “We know that rates of poverty amongst BAME communities is double that of white people. Given their socio economic status, BAME students are more likely to be vulnerable to the economic fallout triggered by COVID-19 and, amongst other things, this may adversely impact their ability to engage with and complete coursework and assessment tasks. Because of the shame that can be associated with financial hardship, some students may well be reluctant to reveal their situation or access financial support.”
This is also reflected in the digital divide. The Office for National Statistics, in a report Exploring the UK’s digital divide published in March 2019 found that disparities across regions, household income and ethnicity remain.
Dr. Singh also notes that given the widespread closure of social spaces (cafes, libraries, community hubs) to access internet, one can safely assume that for less privileged students, the pre-existing structural digital divide is likely to have been compounded.
Impact of COVID-19 on BME communities
Something that is being very keenly felt by some of our current nursing and midwifery students who have recently been deployed to deliver care and our recent graduates, who have made a rapid transition into the NHS workforce, is the worrying disproportionate impact of the health and mortality impact of COVID-19 on BME communities, both patients and workers. The REC SAT Co-chair, Stacy Johnson, is based in the School of Health Sciences which is resolute in its commitment to being at the forefront of innovative comprehensive support for such students. She highlighted the importance of proactive pastoral support for all of our current healthcare students and new recruits into the NHS, and particularly those from the BME community, who will now be working on the very front of the NHS frontline and handling very difficult experiences alongside continuing their academic studies.
Aligned with our work on the REC SAT, there are several projects around the University that have been explicitly examining our curriculum and looking at how our teaching practice can minimise unconscious bias and increase sense of belonging for all of our students, particularly those from a BME background. We know from both sector-wide data and University of Nottingham data that students from a BME background are less likely to be awarded a 2i or first class degree, even when previous educational attainment is taken into account. As we move to online delivery, new sources of bias and inclusion arise – we are suddenly having visibility of people’s homes, their families, their possessions, and our cultural differences may feel more stark.
At this time more than ever, we must proactively consider the diverse needs of our student and staff population. Dr. Singh notes “we know enough from a range of existing and new data sources that historically marginalised sections of the population, including those from a BAME background, are likely to experience higher levels of disadvantage. Many of the issues relating to addressing disparities in BAME retention, such as unconscious bias, sense of alienation from the institution, structural disadvantage and managing to balance home, work and university pressures, will not change because of the virus, but perhaps will be brought into much sharper focus over the weeks and months to come.” He correctly highlights the importance of ensuring that all students, especially the most vulnerable, are provided with the appropriate levels and kinds of practical, emotional and intellectual support.
There are things that we are already doing at the University to address this, and things that we can do more. Firstly, we need to ensure that all of our staff and students are aware of the practical help and support that can be accessed, including financial resource. We recognise that some of our staff and students will have experienced bereavement and trauma and are poised and equipped to provide support to overcome these. As we move from crisis response to stabilisation and growth, we need to recognise the ongoing impact of fear, anxiety, panic and anger that many of our colleagues will be feeling, and will continue to feel. This is understandable, and we need to work together to help everyone to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances – Dr. Singh describes this as moving “from fear, to adaptation, and ultimately growth”.
Secondly, communication is absolutely key to this challenge, and it needs to be emotionally intelligent communication, that responds to the needs and circumstances of all within the conversation, and is extremely difficult to conduct outside a face to face context. But using video in online communication, being friendly as we answer emails, taking some time to have some personal chat as well as dealing with the main purpose of the meeting or activity, can make a real difference to people feeling continually included as part of the University community. Being comfortable with humanising our communications and every encounter we have with staff and students will help us as we all navigate these new and unusual times.
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion has never been more important than now. We may need to adjust the ways that we deliver EDI in the light of the transformed context of Higher Education that we face, and we may need to adjust timescales in the light of competing demands on individuals’ time, but we must not reduce our commitment, priority and passion. We will ensure that as we move through these extremely difficult times, we consider the equality of impact of our decisions on ALL members of our student and staff community, and do our very best to ensure that we emerge from this time as a strong, diverse and inclusive institution.
Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and People.
With thanks to Stacy Johnson (REC SAT Co-Chair) and Dr. Gurnam Singh (Coventry University) for their contributions and support, and to Mun Teng Kwoh for giving permission for her illustration to be shared.
24 April 2020