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The Story of Resurrecting Thoughts from Beneath the Glass Ceiling – Mahesan Niranjan

We were asked to publish this guest post by a member of the University community. The views in the post are not necessarily those of the UCU Executive Committee, but we felt it raised many issues about which members are currently concerned.

Easter is the time of resurrection. To my friend, who doesn’t believe in that Biblical tale, the short break of a few days helped recall to the surface much thought he had suppressed over a period of three and a half decades.

The friend about whom I write teaches at a UK University, specialising in the subject of making inferences from large and complex datasets. His background of escaping from a racist environment is relevant to what follows. At the age of 20 one night, he stood at a police cordon crying, when the library in his town was torched by thugs under the supervision of government ministers. Then at the age of 22, during race riots, he gained his second lease of life by jumping from a second-floor balcony to escape machete-wielding militia.

For someone with that background, the protective bubble of research intense British universities is paradise. He is safe, pursuing curiosity-driven research and challenging junior members with open-ended coursework to show them there is joy in learning. Increasingly though, these are being threatened, with research quality measured by grant income and education packaged into learning outcomes.

Career-wise, it bothers him that he has reached the top and has to stop. If we view a university as consisting of a hierarchy of career jobs, positions of its upper strata of a senior chief, some deputy senior chiefs, other middle ranking chiefs and some deputy middle ranking chiefs are not accessible to my friend. Other observations have upset him, too. The classes he teaches are at best 15% female, homogeneous in ethnicity, and the purchasing power of his students is likely to be in the top fifth of the age group. Along those three orthogonal axes, his subject is far from being inclusive.

Of both the above – the glass ceiling and the non-inclusive enrolment — universities claim to be taking action: reports written, strategies drafted, charters signed, and awards distributed. Yet, over a thirty five-year period, nothing much has changed.  Noise, however, gets amplified. For example, should the proportion of female students in a class increase from 14% to 15%, someone in the hierarchy would claim credit for strategic planning. The phrase “Eee-Dee-Eye” has entered all walks of life like the mantra one repeats during transcendental meditation: rhyming, repetitive and meaningless.

On observing these, my friend shrugs his shoulders, buries the irritations they evoke and carries on with his scholarship. It is easy for him. The knocks he receives from the glass ceiling don’t hurt, for he is endowed with a thick helmet.  His knowledge of far worse. That of his library burning. That of jumping off a second-floor balcony to save his life.

What has changed this Easter, and why is there a re-surfacing of suppressed thoughts?

Context is important. About a year and a half ago, the Equalities Commission (EHRC) suggested UK universities are “institutionally racist”! In a follow-up report, Universities UK (UUK) agreed with that assessment. The timing of these coincided with Black Lives Matter protests. Health inequalities exposed by the pandemic added to the context. The Royal Society, too, chipped in with a report, observing significant differentials in attrition rates along ethnic lines, while failing to analyse why this is so. Then more recently, a UK government commissioned report on race suggested that such things won’t exist, if only one were to stop looking.

The response of universities to these events was predictable. They issued statements. My friend read about ten such and was amused by how correlated they were: (i) about taking it all seriously; (ii) about a lot of work having already been done; and (iii) about much work still remaining to be done. Perhaps the same management consultant was hired to write them. When EHRC and UUK described the universities as institutionally racist, not a single Vice Chancellor could respond by saying “No, my institution is not like that!” Even the future King did a better job when a member of the household was alleged to have expressed curiosity about the skin colour of Her Majesty’s then unborn great grandchild.

Where has my friend heard that shameful phrase “institutional racism” before? Twenty years ago, the Macpherson report on the Metropolitan Police’s botched up inquiry into the racist murder of a Black teenager used that description. Even if one could have some sympathy with the police accumulating statistical bias because, day in day out, they deal with crime, can my friend accept the environment he reveres so much, and where he has sought sanctuary, attracting such a description?

With these thoughts resurrected during the Easter break, my friend ponders: Why?

Mercifully, the ceiling above him is made of glass. He can see through it and look at the holders of high office. None of them could ever be described as racist. None of them would ever utter a racist word or even have racist thought. They value my friend as a person, as a colleague and as a scholar.

That poses a paradox. How is it that individuals who are not racist, collectively run organisations that is judged to be structurally so?

“When malice is not present,” I suggested, “incompetence is where the explanation lies.”

He dismissed me instantly on the grounds that any holders of high office are analytical problem solvers who know how to identify the root cause and solve it at source than fiddle with symptoms. Person specifications of senior jobs require those fine qualities. Having ruled out malice and incompetence, we are left with one last plausible explanation, the mistaken belief in meritocracy.

Senior managers of universities tend to believe that their positions were attained by fair and rigorous processes with merit as their determinant. This is perpetuated by a remuneration system that has expanded its scale in recent times. It is then easy to make the transition from a job interview position of “I am good, pay me a high salary” to a self-fulfilling position of “I am paid a high salary, so I must be good!” Such self-evaluation is a right, my friend concedes, but is that supported by available data, he questions.

This belief is so strong that we have seen several examples of unhealthy behaviour recently: a leader found guilty of bullying holds onto their job; another who erected fences around student halls of residence, attracting a vote of no confidence, also remains in post; another claimed that even though their salary is admittedly high, soccer players earned more; yet another reportedly filed a claim of two pounds for biscuits.

Power does corrupt, does it not?

Once the mindset of meritocracy gets entrenched, cloning becomes the driving force in making appointments. One would want to find someone “solid” to be their deputy or to carry their legacy. In that process of cloning, the use of recruitment consultants is a clever way the system keeps the “other” out. These talent-spotting agents are skilled at saying: “the job attracted a large number of highly qualified applicants” in so many eloquent ways. One could be sceptical of such claims when considering, across the sector, the statistics of international searches discovering that the favoured local candidate to be the best since sliced bread.

More broadly, illusory meritocracy also hurts at the level of enrolment, when entry grades we set are insensitive to wider educational inequalities at schools. To my friend, long-term payoff could only be maximised by encouraging applicants from under-represented communities into Foundation Year programmes and offer them the motivation and skills the schools were not resourced to impart.

With these thoughts resurrected, my friend had a terrible time this Easter weekend. His doctor has ordered doubling his daily dose of Amlodipine as a temporary solution to hypertension.

But he has a long term solution, too, when Semester starts and burying disturbing thought becomes easy: there are research questions to pursue; part of a new module to teach; a challenging assignment to set, and to show students that intellectual curiosity is fun.

A safe and enriching life indeed, beneath the glass ceiling.

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Author’s Disclaimer:

Material in this piece is based on publicly available data and aims to address a generic structural issue of importance. Except in the few examples specifically linked, no part of this blog should be taken as referring to any specific institution or office holders in it.

 

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