Why does British higher education remain so whitewashed?

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The panel at a UCL event in March titled 'Why isn't my professor black?'

Whether observing the programmes for study offered or universities’ staff bodies it is clearly evident that black people, culture and history are all marginalised within British higher education.

The latest statistics on diversity within British higher education seem to reveal a strong disregard for black academics and academia, if not institutionalised racism within the UK’s higher education system. Within UK universities the percentage of black academics is a mere 1.6%, despite the fact that black people constitute approximately 3% of the British population. Out of a total of 18,510 professors in the UK, only 85 are black. Of those 85, just seventeen are women.

Currently there is not a single accredited black studies programme offered within the UK by any university. As Ornette Clennon, lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, puts it: academia is overwhelmingly a practice of Eurocentricity "that excludes other cultural presentations of knowledge while masquerading as being neutral, objective and unbiased."

These figures present a significant problem – for black students, scholars and professors but also British students and society generally, all suffering from the multiple benefits that diversity within education brings.

The ‘brain drain’ of black academics from the UK to the United States, where they find themselves more valued and presented with greater opportunities to progress, is well-known. Britain needs to start looking seriously at the U.S. as a model for how to promote further diversity within higher education and, importantly, the positive outcomes of having a greater black presence within higher education – both the curriculum and staff.

Black Studies or African-American Studies academic departments and degree programmes, which are centred on the history, culture, politics etc. of the African diaspora within North America and elsewhere in the world, exist in universities all over the U.S. including at some of its most prestigious universities – Yale, Harvard and Columbia.

These departments and courses were first founded in the U.S. in 1968 following a strike by a group of (mainly black) students who demanded that their university in San Francisco would develop a degree programme that they could relate to. They got what they wanted and San Francisco State College became a trailblazer for Black Studies within the U.S.

The National Union of Students has found that many black students have a demoralising experience in higher education and, on average, are leaving university with lower results than white students who entered with the same A-level grades. It almost goes without saying that students will be more interested in, and feel more confident in their ability to contribute something worthwhile to, a subject which is their own lived experience or that they can closely identify with and relate to. Likewise, without any visible black role models in the form of professors or among those that they are studying, it is little wonder that many black students do not have full confidence in their own ability to achieve great things academically or in their later careers.

Professor Harry Goulbourne, professor of sociology at London South Bank University, who says that “obviously there ought to be far more” black professors in the UK, has described what he perceives as the positive effect of having a professor who minority students can identify with racially. “I am the only professor who teaches the first year. They meet me for the first time in the second semester and I think they are quite shocked in the sense of my presence; my blackness seems to strike a positive note with them. The majority of students at South Bank are minority Black or Asian and they see so few black academics. I would like to think I am a good role model,” said Goulbourne. He continued, “With just one person in the midst of many, it doesn't necessarily go that far, we need a good collection of people.”

Nor is it just black students that are suffering, those black academics who do manage to succeed against the odds may well experience barriers to their career progression and other issues as a result of being a minority academic or professor. Cecily Jones, a member of the Black British Academics network, says that it is not simply an issue of under-representation of black academics but also "the conditions under which we work; the opaque pay negotiations and promotions structures." Referring to the racial inequality when it comes to who can progress in the world of academia, Jones said: “Senior colleagues decide who is fit for promotion and if your face or research doesn't fit their model of what constitutes worthwhile or valuable research then, you simply don't get put forward for promotion." She added, "It is not enough to bring in more black faces," she says. "The knowledge that we bring in must be validated."

A Race Equality Survey carried out by the Black British Academics earlier this year found that 56 per cent of black higher education staff reported discrimination, while almost three quarters said they would rate their institutions’ performance on race equality as “poor” or “very poor”. Of the 100 respondents, many criticised institutions’ recruitment and promotion practices, with complaints of “closed doors”, “differential treatment” and being “cold shouldered” among the responses. One respondent said, “In an employment capacity, I and other members of staff of colour are often the last to hear about departmental developments […] Information is passed along informally to others beforehand.”

There is much evidence to suggest that Britain would benefit from the introduction of Black Studies programmes to its universities, based on what has been achieved in the U.S. as a result; notably, the emergence of more black professors, heads of department and university administrators.

So why is Britain apparently reluctant to further diversify its higher education and continuing to lag behind the U.S. in that respect? The common argument presented against developing Black Studies in the UK in the past has been that there was not sufficient demand or interest in such programmes. Whilst this argument may have been valid, say, forty years ago, it is not the case today and therefore the decision to exclude Black Studies needs to be reviewed – and reversed.

With a population of almost 3 million in the UK, black people in Britain are a significant part of British society, business, politics and much more and deserve to have degree programmes which recognises the history and significant contributions of black Britons, and black diaspora globally, today and in the past.

White, Asian and other students too would also greatly benefit from the opportunity to learn more about the black experience and history. Currently all British students are being denied a comprehensive education because massive chunks of history, art, literature and much, much more is completely missing from what they are being taught and, therefore, their knowledge.

The wider implications of such a racially biased higher education system for British society also need to be considered carefully. Racism is still very much an issue here in the UK. If students are passing through university without learning about the most advanced early African civilizations, that black people existed in Britain long before the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948, of genius black inventors, or the brilliant literature of Caribbean and African writers, then how can we possibly expect to tackle and overcome the ignorance surrounding black people and their history which breeds racism in this country? Black Studies is essential to eradicating the major misunderstanding surrounding the intellectual ability and contributions of black Britons and black people globally.

Thankfully there are steps being taken toward changing the current Eurocentrism of academia in the UK. University College London (UCL) is leading the movement towards establishing university degree programmes which value black history, culture and academic contributions. In 2007 UCL created the Equiano Centre with the following aims:

  • To foster the development of historical research into the Black presence in Britain and to support a community of postgraduate and academic scholars

  • To facilitate, via a public programme of conferences and workshops, the exchange of ideas and information on the Black presence in Britain.

And, in the longer term:

  • To establish, at University College London, a postgraduate degree with a focus upon the Black presence in Britain

  • To become an internationally renowned research institute for the study of the Black presence in Britain.

Two UCL doctors, Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman were awarded a grant earlier this year to explore the feasibility of establishing an interdisciplinary Black Studies Masters programme at UCL.

On 15 May a group of black scholars met to set up and established the British Black Studies Association, which will work towards Black Studies degree programmes being introduced to British universities. We can only hope that it will not be too long before the current education system is seriously revised, to place a greater value on black academia than it currently does.