No 49: Addressing ‘race’ and ethnicity in social policy

Racism and ethnic discrimination are rife within higher education. The Social Policy Association is taking steps to address these problems within its discipline.
Stand up to Racism march in London, March 2018. (Alan Denney/Creative Commons)

by Steve Iafrati and Jane Millar

Social policy has always been a dynamic discipline that has readily identified new social challenges and been at the forefront of recognising ways of improving society. Amidst a contemporary political hegemony of ‘intellectual and moral leadership’ characterised by new social divisions and tensions, the discipline of social policy faces fresh challenges.  

The recent report by Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights (see earlier blog in this series), observed that through austerity and cuts to services, ‘much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos’. Potentially, it is the decline in social ‘glue’ that has contributed to increased social divisions and conflict.  

This is especially true in the case of ‘race’ and ethnicity in contemporary Britain. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, there has been a pronounced increase in racially aggravated assaults and Islamophobia. Examples including Windrush Scandal, Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment, Amber Rudd’s commitment to stop immigrants ‘taking jobs British people could do as well as claims of EU workers ‘jumping the queue to take British jobs, have further fuelled divisions and resentment towards those who may be perceived as foreigners, regardless of their actual status.  

In the face of such challenging times, social policy must continue to be proactive in seeking and shaping solutions. Our scholarship has played a crucial role in challenging assumptions in areas such as gender inequality, welfare reform, access to health and social care, food poverty and in-work poverty, and many other areas central to the well-being of individuals, communities and society as a whole.

However, the SPA’s recent report The Missing Dimension: Where is ‘race’ in Social Policy teaching and learning? identifies a lack of diversity within the ranks of researchers and senior academics in social policy. Undoubtedly, this is a large issue that will take a long time to resolve, but more immediate changes are within the gift of those teaching and researching within social policy. With our contemporary curricula traditionally shaped by the giants of illness, housing, poverty, social security and education, reflecting long-standing inequalities of ‘race’ and ethnicity in intersection with other social divisions is also an essential part of the social policy curriculum. Our current focus and content may need to evolve in a similar way to other disciplines, such as the Royal Historical Society.  

Evidence shows that BAME academics remain under-represented at the highest levels and that social policy could do more to reflect on the diversity of our curricula and staffing. Out of 19,000 professors in UK universities, only 125 are black and whilst this is an improvement from 50 out of 14,000 in 2011, it still only represents an increase from 0.36 per cent to 0.66 per cent. The SPA commissioned report, as well as the process of identifying and recommending sub-panel members for REF2021, shows that we are not immune from needing to address how we change.

The report identifies a number of areas for change. As a starting point, the report recognises that social policy could be more explicit in recognising the particular effects of changes in areas such as welfare reform and employment for BAME citizens. At a time when 90 per cent of the population do not see skin colour as a defining element of being English, BAME communities remain more likely to experience the impacts of welfare reforms and precarious employment.  

And, as with other subjects, there remains a disproportionate lack of diversity within those teaching and researching in social policy and a lack of modules specifically addressing BAME issues. To be fair, many courses at UK universities included in the report readily incorporate modules from other disciplines such as sociology and criminology within their courses and many integrate issues related to race and ethnicity within broader topics. Whilst this is good, it can risk failing to add a specifically social policy focus on challenges and risks, seeming to ‘outsource’ interest in and expertise on such topics. Reflecting such trends, it is also evident that more could be done to proactively support and improve diversity and representation in scholarly contributions to social policy journals and conferences.  

However, the issues raised in the report go beyond the role that social policy alone can have in effecting change. It became clear that many universities contacted in preparing the report could not quantify the proportion of BAME staff or students linked to social policy in their institutions. Citing a lack of data, difficulty accessing such data or GDPR restrictions on sharing such data, it is fair to say that we still do not know the full picture of what needs to be addressed. In addition, it may be that the picture varies across universities in terms of geography and university status.  

Moving forward, the report provides a useful opportunity to stop and reflect on our current position as well as to consider how we move forward. Some good news is already starting to emerge as Social Policy Review is planning a Themed Section reflecting on ‘race’ and ethnicity and this year’s SPA conference has an opening plenary focusing on ‘race’, racism and social policy. Additionally, the SPA will be producing an action plan later in 2019 to consider how the association can also support change. However, there exists further room for change and development. This might include modules specifically examining ’race’ and ethnicity during curriculum review, specific streams at future conferences, as well as more articles and themed sections in the many social policy journals.  

The phrase ‘we are all in it together’ has something of a hollow ring to it since it was misappropriated to justify the divisive policies of austerity. However, societies do need common cause and common purpose, within the context of diversity and inclusion. Social policy can, and should, be at the forefront of this academic challenge.

Dr Steve Iafrati is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for Social Policy at the University of Wolverhampton and Vice Chair of the Social Policy Association. His main research interests cover poverty, communities and welfare provision. He tweets @steve_iafrati.

Jane Millar, FBA is Professor of Social Policy in the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath. She is Chair of the Social Policy Association. She tweets @millar_jane.

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