Conversations about Race

Making spaces for the King’s College London (KCL) community to engage in facilitated race-based conversations where students and staff from all backgrounds can share their experiences.

BME students have consistently been awarded fewer 1sts and 2:1s compared to White students. A report published by NUS/UUK highlighted that ‘open, meaningful and constructive conversations about race, racism and ethnicity are vital’ to addressing the causes of gaps in attainment.

The report also recommends that there is a need for executive teams across all universities to acknowledge how race is ‘at the heart of the BAME attainment gap within universities’.

Attainment gaps are caused by a variety of factors as seen by the report commissioned by Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). Currently, gaps in attainment are identified on the bases of factors such as disability, age and ethnicity.

At KCL, the ethnicity attainment gap is the largest of all three. Moreover, data on student satisfaction and degree outcomes by ethnicity indicated inequality of learner experience but there wasn’t a safe space for people to share their experiences.
As indicated in the NUS/UKK report, structural inequality and adverse experiences faced by students and staff is impacting their attainment.

These factors are complex and they often go unidentified. This highlights the need for facilitated spaces to have meaningful, transparent and empathetic race-based discussions between staff and students.

KCL felt there needed to be a safe space to start talking about issues related to race or for people to share their experiences.

A member of the Student Outcomes team worked with Citizens UK and King's College London Students' Union (KCLSU) to create the Conversation about Race (CAR) project in response to discussions around attainment at King’s and across the sector.

They also wanted to ensure race-based conversations were sustained and continued after Black History Month for the KCL community.

The programme was developed in collaboration with Citizens UK during the 2019-20 academic year, and it employs different facets of community organising techniques to facilitate meaningful discussions about race between students and staff from all backgrounds.

These faculty-specific sessions help faculties become more aware of students’ experiences with race at the university, document these insights and steer faculty action plans to close differences in attainment.

The insights from these sessions help the university to enable action on the attainment agenda in three ways:

  1. The sessions allow the university to gain a deeper understanding of the BME student experience by collecting qualitive data which can be utilised to create an inclusive learning environment.
  2. Support staff and students to reflect and create change in their own sphere of influence.
  3. Provide insights which supports the development of strategic action plans.

CAR sessions are scheduled and facilitated on a termly basis by a member of the Student Outcomes team who liaises with key contacts from faculties across KCL.

The session is co-delivered with the support from our Inclusive Education Student Partners. The format of the session is as follows:

  • Each session starts with a rounds question which is led by a member of the delivery team. Attendees are asked to answer the same question: “Tell us about a significant moment that made you think about race at KCL?”
  • After the rounds question, attendees set the ground rules for the discussion to ensure common rules of practise and respect among the group
  • The rest of the session is led and facilitated by one member of the Student Success team focusing on questions such as “is there a right way to talk about race?” and “how do we move beyond the conversation?”
  • This format is used to build trust among participants and promotes equal participation from all attendees
  • A report is produced following each session, summarising key insights and suggested actions which is sent to all participants and to senior stakeholders from the faculty.

KCL also provides training for students and staff who are interested in facilitating CAR sessions to further empower the KCL community.

The training aims to equip KCL students and staff members with the tools and techniques required to facilitate successful CAR sessions. The session covers core community organising and facilitation methods. The objectives for this training are:

  • Enabling students and staff to organise and initiate more conversations about race in their faculty or department, using a tried and tested format
  • Ensuring students and staff are equipped with the skills to facilitate difficult conversations by applying community-organising methodology.

Since the launch of the programme, KCL has delivered 20 CAR sessions with an attendance of more than 450 students and staff. It has also trained 41 facilitators across KCL who have delivered further CAR sessions in their faculties or departments.

Beyond this engagement, the impact of the programme has been to increase the academic faculties’ understanding of BME student experiences through the sessions and the post session report.

One example of a direct action taken as a result of the session has been the launch of an initiative titled ‘Call me by My Name’ from one of our faculties.

The faculty worked towards having preferred names on badges and encouraging staff to ask students how to pronounce their names and encouraging students to politely correct pronunciation. Outcomes of the approach are measured on a point rating scale survey which is sent to participants before and after the session. Some of these include:

  • Faculty staff and students are motivated to have more conversations about race
  • Faculties have improved knowledge of BME student experience and structural inequality in higher education
  • BME students feel listened to and have improved sense of belonging to KCL and the faculty.

Below are some of the quotes from the participants who attended the CAR sessions.

‘Having these conversations is a very important first step in the process of bringing about positive change. So, thank you for creating the space for us to have the conversation.’
‘I felt heard.’
‘Thank you, it was a unique experience, I have never really participated in a group discussion about such topics before.’

Further details

See the other case studies from King College London:


Muhammad Arkam Babar, Student Outcomes Officer (Learning)

Published 24 November 2021

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