Confronting racial inequality in the academy

Recent data from the Equality Challenge Unit's Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report and its 2011 Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic Staff in HE in England report continue to reveal a dearth of diversification and a lack of representation and visibility for Black and minority ethnic or BME staff in United Kingdom universities, culminating in reduced opportunities for career progression, particularly for those wishing to pursue a career within academia.

Within UK higher education racial inequality has long been problematic and has been accompanied by discrimination, isolation and marginalisation. The UK government has responded more often with rhetoric rather than specific targeted action.

The challenging of existing orthodoxies then becomes more difficult with opportunities restricted for aspiring BME academics as they encounter persistent barriers that are firmly embedded by higher education institutions supposedly tasked with reflecting a multicultural, diverse society.

Statistics from the Equality Challenge Unit suggest that BME individuals face significant challenges and reduced opportunities to access careers in higher education in comparison to their White counterparts.

Academia remains the province of the White middle class. Ethnic minorities are not being provided with the same types of career-defining opportunities as their White counterparts. Unconscious bias is restricting opportunity; and the cycle of privilege and power continues to reinforce inequality.

Value of diversity

Diversity within the academy becomes imperative when considering how we value certain types of embodied knowledge, particularly when attempting to decipher which types of knowledge should maintain certain levels of prominence and importance. Historically, the dominant Eurocentric curricula that has submersed academia, has contributed to the lack of importance afforded to race-related studies and scholarly endeavour.

The platform provided to racialised discourse within the academy remains an issue, as it continues to be ignored and trivialised in favour of blissful ignorance and normativity. This is highlighted by the dearth of specific Black-related studies within the UK and Europe.

The recent emergence and development of the only Black Studies undergraduate degree in Europe, indicates the difficulty in bringing such programmes to fruition through the rigmarole of oppressive university systems and regimes that overtly and covertly reinforce racism and demean the value of such types of indigenous knowledge.

Traditional subjects such as history, English and politics have historically maintained a seat at the top table of academia, particularly at Russell Group institutions. The prioritised status raises the question of why certain types of ‘particular’ knowledge are valued over others, in this case, indigenous and colonial knowledge.

The academy must address the imbalance. The question that needs to reverberate throughout academia is whether a subject like Black Studies could be presented ‘eventually’ with a seat at the top table of academia?

As more international students access the British higher education system, there are emerging movements such as Why is my Curriculum White? and Why isn’t my Professor Black? that have placed an emphasis on decolonising the current curriculum and provide an alternative that is more representative and inclusive of the individuals who access it.

Representation and opportunity are central to this argument as disparities continue to reveal barriers that are facilitated through continuous cycles of power and privilege, reinforced by individuals best positioned to continue the status quo.

The latter often resort to the claim of ‘hyper-sensitivity’, suggesting BME individuals have now adopted ‘the micro-aggression mantra’ as a way to conceptualise their anecdotal experiences, thereby reinforcing the notion of the continually oppressed and victimised.

Such attitudes towards racial inequality demean and trivialise the seriousness of insidious racism and the debilitating effect it continues to have on BME individuals’ confidence in attempting to navigate the normatively White terrain of academia.

Career progression

Institutionally racist structures that have been consciously or unconsciously maintained by universities further disadvantage BME individuals attempting to access or progress within academia, whether in postgraduate study or career progression.

An Equality Report undertaken by the University of Oxford declared that in 2012 the proportion of BME staff at Russell Group institutions constituted only 12%. Disappointingly, BME academics make up just 7.8% of UK nationals who are academics in higher education institutions in the UK as of 2014.

This situation is compounded by the barriers that BME individuals continue to face within the academy such as lack of progression to senior roles; reduced opportunities to disseminate race-related research; lower starting salaries; professional capabilities continuously scrutinised; and importantly, the lack of representation and diversification among university staff workforces, leading to feelings of isolation and marginalisation.

In truth, White counterparts are not exposed to such barriers, and this creates a two-tiered system which advantages one group and disadvantages another.

Specific interventions by universities to recruit and diversify staff populations are needed, in addition to Research Councils providing specific funding opportunities for aspiring BME academics who wish to undertake race-related research, as a means of entering the academy.

The problem

Racial discrimination within the academy remains problematic and continues to be a persistent barrier for BME individuals attempting to progress in UK academia. Paradoxically, universities continue to contradict egalitarian ideals with exclusionary practices resulting in the clustering of ethnic minority individuals in predominantly 'post-1992' institutions.

This is wholly discouraging. Research indicates that upon admission most BME individuals possess the academic capability required to enter and attend elite UK universities. Insultingly, the 'post-1992' institutions now seem to have become the reservoir of aspirational Black Britain, a condescending and oppressive narrative.

Inadvertently, this in many ways reinforces the cycle of segregation, exclusion and marginalisation of BME individuals from the academy.

The persistent ‘glass ceiling’ faced by BME academics attempting to pursue a career in academia continues to undermine notions of equality and diversity often espoused in British universities.

A tectonic shift is required regarding the landscape of higher education and this needs to be driven by university senior administrators who must be held accountable for not actively prioritising and advancing the diversification of staff and student populations.

Universities could measure their equality and diversity protocols by regularly engaging in audits that monitor BME participation within their institutions with regards to staffing and student attainment at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Initiatives such as the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter mark provide a framework for universities to examine, identify and self-reflect on institutional and cultural barriers which disadvantage minority ethnic staff and students.

This initiative attempts to remove the long-held complacency entrenched within university cultures that have previously disregarded issues of equity, diversity and equality. The importance of this issue has regularly received secondary status and is often viewed as a compulsory tick box procedure to satisfy university internal training.

The terrain of academia as it presently exists, ensures that collectively much effort is still required if we are to continue to advance this discourse and dismantle racial inequality within UK higher education.

Dr Jason Arday is a senior lecturer in physical education and sociology at Leeds Beckett University, Carnegie Faculty, UK, and a trustee of the Runnymede Trust and co-chair of the Runnymede Academic Forum. In 2017 he will publish three books: Considering Racialised Contexts in Education: Using reflective practice and peer-mentoring to support Black and Ethnic Minority educators (Routledge); Being Young, Black and Male: Challenging the dominant discourse (Palgrave); and Cool Britannia and Multi-Ethnic Britain: Uncorking the champagne supernova (Routledge). He is also co-editor of an edited collection with Professor Heidi Mirza entitled Race in Higher Education: Dismantling racial inequality within the academy, which will be published by Palgrave in September 2017.