‘Every Little Helps’ on this Rugged Road to a More Inclusive University

Doctoral Researcher Izram Chaudry reflects on obstacles to the attainment and retention of BME staff and students in higher education.

I recently revisited my ‘old stomping ground’, Leeds Beckett University, for the Annual Race Lecture organised by the University’s Race Equality Forum. The keynote speaker was Mr Amatey Doku, a former Vice-President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students and currently a Consultant at Nous Group. Entitled: The Black Attainment Gap: Viewing The Student Experience Through A Race Lens”, the lecture explored the issues that are systematically obstructing the attainment of black and minority ethnic (BME) students.

Peering into the future of BME students in UK higher education

Mr Doku extolled the Black History Month, which was warmly welcomed by the audience comprised of academics and non-academics. He discussed the role that academia had played in promoting Western colonial interests. He stated that the conceptualisation of racial sciences by nineteenth-century intellectuals influenced the socially-constructed division of people based on arbitrary characteristics. For example, Dr James Hunt, the President of the Anthropological Society of London, had claimed that the intellectually inferior and ‘naturally’ subordinate ‘negro’ could only be civilised by the Europeans, thus justifying Western colonial and intellectual conquests. Mr Doku stated that the current inequalities faced by students and staff reflect a colonial legacy.

This is demonstrated through a Eurocentric curriculum that has privileged Western scholarship and marginalised non-Western epistemologies. This curriculum has left BME students feeling alienated, as the pedagogical practices and course materials are not inclusive or appropriate to their backgrounds. Doku pointed out that the dearth of BME profile in senior academic positions has normalised a culture where reading lists and theoretical perspectives include only Western scholars such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim, positioning them as the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences. This claim was further substantiated with statistics that showed that only 0.6% of the professors in the higher education sector in the UK are black and less than 30 of them are female.

Consequently, BME students find little resonance with the content being taught. They also feel a reduced sense of belonging within academia. Mr Doku claimed the accumulation of these factors coincides with the prevalence of overt and covert racism, thus actively damaging the attainment prospects of BME students. He drew upon a report examining the attainment gap commissioned by Universities UK and the National Union of Students, which showed that across all types of universities, 81% of white students were graduating with a 2:1 or First, compared to only 56% of black students. The keynote concluded with Mr Doku outlining his vision for more inclusive universities.

He recommended that higher educational institutions should model their approaches after Tesco. Yes, Tesco.  He meant that supermarkets, such as Tesco, understand and cater for the diverse people that enter through their doors. Customers can visit a supermarket and with minimum fuss, go directly to their chosen isle to fetch a product or service that is suited to their needs. This uncritical analogy was particularly appreciated by the audience.

He recommended that higher educational institutions should model their approaches after Tesco. Yes, Tesco.  He meant that supermarkets, such as Tesco, understand and cater for the diverse people that enter through their doors. Customers can visit a supermarket and with minimum fuss, go directly to their chosen isle to fetch a product or service that is suited to their needs. This uncritical analogy was particularly appreciated by the audience.

During the discussion that followed the keynote, an academic of colour articulated the harsh realities that have been imposed upon her and fellow BME colleagues for playing a leading role in the fight for inclusion. She said being “thin on the ground” in terms of staff numbers and having limited expertise within the departments have hindered their capacity to effect lasting changes. Her remarks, accentuated through the sound of fatigue in her voice and gestures of frustration, compelled many attendees to turn towards her and nod their heads in acknowledgement of her claims. Many attendees said that the increasing pressure for BME academics to resolve these intricate matters has left them feeling ‘burnt out’ and isolated.

This interval of dialogue deeply resonated with me. As a student, I have seen BME academic staff in tears, taking time off for stress, and even changing workplaces because they felt that they had been treated unjustly by their institutions. Unrealistic workloads had left them constantly exhausted and disaffected with their work. Bhopal et al. (2016) explained that the retention rate for BME academics of colour in Britain has suffered. This has led some to relocate overseas, in the hope that they will feel valued, respected and supported. A recent report, The Broken Pipeline, which revealed key aspects of the structural racism that has limited the number of Black PhD candidates and academics in the UK, paints a depressing picture. The disconcerting figures highlighted that only 1.2% of the 19,868 scholarships awarded by all the UKRI research councils over a three-year period went to Black or Black Mixed applicants.

Overall, I had mixed feelings regarding the evening. Mr Doku was powerful and spirited in his argument. I noted that his decision to use non-technical and accessible discourse was appreciated by the attendees from non-academic backgrounds. However, the institutional response to the keynote was inadequate in acknowledging  Mr Doku’s key message as well as the perceptions of the audience. It was quite disturbing that the senior member of staff who responded on behalf of the institution used the term ‘non-coloured’ and claimed that she had only recently become aware of what micro-aggressions were. To the dismay of the audience, she also revealed that she was unaware that racism may be communicated in indirect, subtle and unintentional ways (Sue et al., 2007). Her claim flies in the face of previous research conducted at the university (Joseph-Salisbury, 2018; Doharty, 2019) and past events (White Lies About Race and Education; Race and Higher Education) that featured forceful debates about micro-aggression racism.

If we are to achieve a real change that would make academia more inclusive, senior leadership must take stronger steps in facilitating change. Higher education leaders must be aware of the debate and dialogue occurring on these matters and be willing to provide the necessary support and resources for staff working on improving the attainment prospects of BME students. I conclude by leaving this familiar quote for readers: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

References
Bhopal, K. Brown, H. & Jackson, J. (2016) BME academic flight from UK to overseas higher education: Aspects of marginalisation and exclusion. British Educational Research Journal, 42 (2), pp. 240-257.
Doharty, N. (2019) ‘I FELT DEAD’: applying a racial microaggressions framework to Black students’ experiences of Black History Month and Black History. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22 (1), pp.110-129.
Joseph-Salisbury, R. (2018) Prelims’, Black Mixed-Race Men. Critical Mixed Race Studies.
Sue, D.W. Capodilupo, C.M. Torino, G.C. Bucceri, J.M. Holder, A. Nadal, K.L. & Esquilin, M. (2007) Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. American psychologist, 62 (4), p. 271.