Universities must act to overcome racial disparities

Research has recently uncovered that BAME students are less likely to continue their higher education studies into a PHD, with only 1.3 per cent of BAME students beginning one within five years of graduation, compared to 2.4 per cent of white students. This is a particularly significant difference, especially as PHD students are our future academics, adding to the canon of UK research.

Lack of diversity in bodies of research creates a self-perpetuating cycle. If you don’t see yourself represented in analysis or research, it is easy to conclude that academia is not for you. This research simply adds further fuel to the growing body of evidence supporting the argument that UK universities are not doing enough to promote diversity, and are not welcoming for ethnic minorities.

This is a debate that has been raging especially strongly in the past several years, for example in 2015 it was reported that 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not award a place to a black British pupil. British universities are traditionally made up by the white, middle-classes and 76 per cent of university students are white. It is, sadly, inevitable that our higher education system would reflect the universal and institutional inequalities found in our country, but it is also systemic of a greater problem across universities.

The problem of underrepresented ethnic minorities in universities not only reflects wider societal ills, but has dual immediate causes: people of colour are often less likely to apply to prestigious institutions due to fear of not fitting in or being not good enough. Even when they do apply they run the risk of being rejected for institutional bias, creating a negative cycle. Although universities individually cannot stymie all British racism, they can be crucial in ensuring intelligent students from all backgrounds get the best possible chances. One of the best places to start is hiring more BAME professors and senior staff.

The national statistics here are shocking: there are only 25 black female professors across the entire UK university system. This is something the University of Edinburgh itself can begin remedying, since only 10 per cent of the entire staff body are BAME, suggesting Edinburgh does have the “stale, male and pale” issue that haunts many institutions. Not only does hiring more BAME staff create a more welcoming environment, it also helps to remove institutional bias in hiring and in reviewing student applications.

This, however, is just a start. Universities must also pay attention to the intersectionality between race and class, as this is often overlooked. Geographical location plays a key role in the likelihood of getting into university. This has been argued by David Lammy MP, who pointed out earlier this year that two London boroughs, Richmond and Barnet, send more kids to Oxbridge than the entirety of Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester combined. Statistics for all Russell Group universities are most likely similar, so universities must carry on improving accessibility to higher education, and modifying the restrictive grade offer system to allow more room for minorities, as well as increasing support systems within universities.

Much of this all traces back to what I see as the major problem with the UK higher education system. Universities are more than ever run as businesses rather than institutions to promote a force for social good. The University of Edinburgh alone has an endowment fund of almost £1 billion. Despite posturing over using these funds to invest in socially responsible companies, it often seems as if the main priority is simply collecting more money from student cash cows. As top universities are businesses, they are simply more concerned with attracting foreign students, who pay extortionate fees, than helping underprivileged minorities. Concerted pressure must be exerted on universities, by their students, departments and the Government to ensure they do not continue to reinforce the current extent of inequality.


Image: dun_deagh via flickr

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