Stop mandatory unconscious bias training, think tank report argues

A report published by Civitas argues unconscious bias training is in opposition to academic freedom

University students should not be taught critical race theory and receive mandatory unconscious bias training, a centre-right think tank report has argued. 

The Civitas report – Rethinking Race: A critique of contemporary anti-racism programmes – positions critical race theory (CRT), an academic framework that investigates ways ideologies, structures and institutions create and maintain racial inequality, in opposition to the “values of objectivity, neutrality, equality and meritocracy”. 

Author Joanna Williams, who previously taught at the University of Kent as director of the centre for the study of higher education, maintains CRT is opposed to academic freedom because “personal, or ‘lived’ experience, is privileged over objectivity”. 

Williams includes a testimony from an anonymised academic at a university in London who alleges that employer-organised anti-racism instructors “ignore all the research that challenges” their practice and provide “no scope for questioning” the training, which “is not really optional”. 

The report also asserts that unconscious bias training is wrong because factors other than race impact student outcomes. “The more such factors are accounted for, the smaller ethnicity alone appears to be a factor in determining attainment,” Williams wrote; though she does not claim the data supports the view that ethnicity bears no correlation. 

Williams evidences this assertion with quotes from another Civitas report, published in 2020, by Derby University academic Dr Ruth Mieschbuehler. 

Mieschbuehler concluded: “Any claim that ethnic attainment differences exist and persist across British higher education is not substantiated by the statistical research data”. Mieschbuehler came to this conclusion after reviewing government data from 2007 that analysed ethnicity and degree attainment figures against other ‘control’ factors, such as prior attainment, disability and deprivation using the Index of Multiple Deprivation.  

Although Mieschbuehler drew this conclusion, the data presented shows an ethnic attainment gap even when considered against other control factors. This data analysis found that Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani students were still less likely to achieve a First or 2:1 degree than their white peers, although the attainment gap was smaller. Mieschbuehler did not investigate whether these groups of students may statistically be more likely to enter university from an economically deprived background, for example. 

Unconscious bias training

University Business published a feature on unconscious bias training following a publication of a report by Advance HE’s Equality Challenges Unit (ECU). Gurnam Singh, associate professor of equity of attainment at Coventry University told UB: “Unconscious bias models are based on the assumption that discrimination is the product of cognitive dissonance and that, if we can rebalance people’s perceptions, bias will go away. The reality is that bias is a systemic problem that results partly in the institutional mechanisms of reward and punishment.

“So, unless the training is backed up by sanctions, it is difficult to see how unconscious bias training on its own can make any significant impact.

“Indeed, it could actually make things worse by generating complacency among those members of staff who may have participated in the training. Institutional racism cannot be defeated by such token measures, but requires a whole range of measures.”

Special report: Unconscious bias training – Is it time your university signed up?

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