Dr Zainab Khan on institutional racism, non-continuation rates and decolonisation

University Business interviews London Metropolitan University’s pro-vice-chancellor about whether universities have the answers for tackling racial inequality in higher education

Dr Zainab Khan is not only pro-vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) but also director of the Centre for Equality and Inclusion at London Metropolitan University – an institution that, in her own words, “aspires to be anti-racist”. Proving its intentions, in March London Met launched its Race Equity Strategy, detailing a host of targets, pledges and initiatives the institution will work on over the next five years.

In an exclusive interview, James Higgins asks Dr Khan what changes London Met hopes to make and what’s stopping universities from making more progress in tackling racial inequality.


On whether universities have the answers for tackling racial inequality:

I think we do know what the solutions are. I think the sticking point has been committing sufficient resource behind delivering those solutions. Over the last couple of years we’re seeing many more institutions being part of the conversation around race and institutional racism, which can only be a good thing. But what we then often see is a commitment by institutions to put their eggs in one basket […] I think universities have been reluctant to recognise the scale of the challenge.

On where she wants London Met to be by 2025:

The headline goal is one of complete institutional transformation. When we talk about holistic change we’re talking about looking systemically at every corner of the university. Some of the targets relate to what we want to achieve in terms of our educational provision, both in terms of the curriculum, and our teaching practice and our ethos, then we’ve [also] got targets around culture change.

On non-continuation rates:

Recent research […] has shone the light on the fact that universities over the course of the last 20 years have been particularly successful, by and large, in recruiting growing numbers of ethnic minority students, but the problem has really been what happens once they arrive. We are seeing disparities in key milestones in the student life cycle: continuation, progression rates, degree awards and graduate destinations. It’s an ethical imperative for universities to look again at the provision; we have to take responsibility for those gaps.

On how much responsibility lies with universities:

Often it feels like the weight of dealing with the challenge of institutional racism is too heavy. But actually, if you think about the positionality of higher education, we’ve got a huge footprint that we contribute to the landscape that creates these systemic, entrenched inequalities. First of all, we provide the labour market with all of its professional pathways – we provide that pipeline of talent – and it’s our knowledge and research which is shaping policy. The potential of universities to have societal change is huge; I would go as far as saying it’s unrivalled by any other sector.

On whether its target for increasing the number of staff from Black and minoritised backgrounds is achievable:

It’s got to be achievable because it needs to happen. We can’t have a sector which is lagging behind most other industries in terms of diversity. We have to set these targets because we’ve talked about racism for years but we’re not actually getting any further along.

On decolonising the curriculum:

I think the reason why it has become such a hot potato is because people don’t really understand what decolonising means and they don’t understand that decolonising can coexist alongside established academic conventions. When we talk about decolonising the curriculum what we’re saying is that we’re engaging students in a more critical enquiry into accepted histories. You can interrogate history in a way that still honours and acknowledges other presentations of historical accounts.

On teaching students to be inclusive:

We want to embed inclusive leadership in our graduate attributes so that when our students go out into the world of work they are inclusive experts. When you’re hiring a London Met graduate in the future, you’ll know that this person has a strong social, ethical conscious.

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