This month’s Leader Article The Unequal Academy is by Professor Jayne Osgood in the Department of Education, Middlesex University
At the Annual Teaching and Learning conference held at Middlesex University earlier this month our academic community was privileged enough to hear from two of the most prominent figures currently shaping intersectionality debates in Higher Education. Professor Kalwant Bhopal and Professor Heidi Mirza hardly need introductions; both are renowned for their rigorous, impassioned and insightful contributions to the field by insisting that it is imperative that universities act upon their obligation to take a long hard look at approaches to equality, diversity and inclusion and to ensure that voicing a commitment to inclusivity amounts to more than mere lip-service.
The conference was opened by Professor Bhopal, her keynote presentation was entitled: The Unequal Academy: the experiences of BME Academics. She took the audience on a tour of her research on the issue that spans more than two decades – which is in itself both impressive and troubling – underscoring the fact that we still have so much work to do and cannot allow race to fall off the agenda if universities really are to live up the reputation they have as liberal, left-leaning, inclusive spaces. Kalwant was unapologetic in her insistence that universities must confront difficult truths – name racism for what it is; recognise the presence and practice of white privilege; and invest seriously in a sustained and nuanced way to address racism through cultural change at every level of the institution. She offered valuable insights from her research about what can be done in a practical sense, from mentoring, the racism audits, to allyship and paying careful attention to the language that is used in EDI initiatives and everyday practice. The wide-ranging and critical appraisal of all that is wrong in HE offered by Kalwant, concluded with a note of activist hope – she shared her vision for what more needs to be done to take race seriously and to make fundamental changes to our policies, practices and pedagogies.
Later in the day, Professor Heidi Mirza delivered the second keynote presentation of the conference: Decolonising Pedagogies: challenges of race, faith and culture for academic educators in post-race and post-colonial times. Her presentation picked up many of the threads offered by Kalwant and specifically focused on how HEIs might go about decolonising the curriculum in ways that are sensitive, collaborative and meaningful to everyone involved. She drew on a rich legacy of black feminist scholarship to argue that as a community Middlesex University must navigate hopes, dreams and desires in complex spaces that she terms the ‘teaching machine’. We need to ‘find cracks in the system’ and develop ‘pedagogies of resistance’. There were opportunities for audience participation and when asked ‘who are you?’ a word cloud was materialised that underlined the multiplicities of our identities and offered an invitation to consider how we see ourselves (and our students) in the content and delivery of our curriculum. She went on to argue that decolonising pedagogies is complex and messy but when underpinned by an ethic of love and engagement can bring about a cultural shift that directly challenges racism and white privilege.
Together these powerful presentations set the tone for the conference, but they achieved so much more. They facilitated the start of difficult questions and the continuation of difficult conversations that need to be had. They provided provocations, insights and practical recommendations for ways that cultural, institutional, social and political changes are possible in HE spaces.