Is Cambridge doing enough to tackle race issues?

What is the University (not just the student body) doing, and is it working?

Last summer, Cambridge University implemented a “reverse-mentoring” scheme, involving the pairing up of Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff (BAME) with white senior academics. The intention of the scheme was that the BAME staff members would act as mentors for their white colleagues, encouraging them to spot racial bias and educating them about discrimination. This, at first, does seem like a positive step towards ensuring racial awareness amongst the staff body.

However, reports last month claimed that the scheme was not being taken seriously by mentees, and BAME staff members were finding it to be burdensome.  This suggests that it is flawed, given the seeming unwillingness of both parties to participate.

The response to the scheme, on the whole, is quite unsurprising. The expectation for BAME staff members to take it upon themselves to teach their mentees is unsettling. Lugging the responsibility of tackling racism on these staff members alone is not a sufficient enough approach.

Maro Okiti, Trinity Hall’s BME officer, believes that “the scheme is well-meaning”, but she finds it “problematic that we have to place BME people in the role of ‘educating’ their white peers not to be racist.” She adds that outsourcing student anti-racism workshops to the teaching faculty would eliminate “any form of emotional labour on the part of BME staff”, giving said workshops a more “important” feel.

Another step would be seeing more BAME staff members in top positions; they would be more conscious and understanding with regards to issues related to race, and would, of course, ensure a more representative managerial body. Students would also deeply benefit from this diverse representation, as they would be able to relate more to staff figures.

This is considerably important, in the light of shocking data published earlier this year, which revealed that the number of black academics in top UK university roles is fixed at zero. We therefore need more BAME representation in higher positions more than ever, especially in higher education establishments. Students can thus be encouraged and inspired as they are gradually exposed to a staff body that is not white-dominated. Academia desperately needs to be more representative.

Fortunately, other efforts made by the university are a lot more encouraging. In 2018, the counselling service made it possible for BAME students to see minority ethnic counsellors upon request, showing the university’s awareness of how mental health issues can impact ethnic minorities in different ways compared to their white peers. Students can therefore be assured to be seen by a counsellor who can relate more to their experiences.

In 2019, the University received a Race Equality Charter (REC) Bronze award, demonstrating its progress in accepting, recruiting and supporting both minority ethnic students and staff. Furthermore, each year, the University succeeds in recruiting more and more BAME staff. 

Though a lot is left to do and failures have arisen, progress is clearly being made, and that is something that we should feel positively about.

The University told The Cambridge Tab: “”We were encouraged that the University’s work on race and racism was acknowledged with the Race Equality Charter bronze award. Applying for the REC award was a complex and difficult journey that invited us to identify and reflect honestly on the impact of structural and other forms of racism on staff and students.

“We know there is work to do. We have developed a three-year action plan to tackle any racialised inequalities and embed an inclusive culture, including new staff recruitment guidelines which have been developed to assist appointment panels in attracting and recruiting diverse applicants.

“A relatively small ‘reverse mentoring’ pilot scheme was also launched, in which senior White members of staff were mentored by a BAME staff member. We are hugely appreciative of the efforts of those who volunteered as mentors and recognise that some of them have found it a challenging experience. As we continue to develop the scheme we will listen to their feedback and provide them with additional support if they feel they need it.”