History’s minority

October 30, 2014

We write as a group of concerned black historians and teachers anxious to highlight during Black History Month the alarmingly low numbers of black history students at undergraduate and postgraduate level, including the low numbers of those training as teachers. We believe that if a public investigation is not undertaken, it will be impossible to pursue action to remedy this dire situation.

Recent national newspaper reports have highlighted the fact that only three black students were admitted to higher education to train as history teachers last year. Higher Education Statistics Agency data for 2011-12 and 2012-13 indicate that history is the third most unpopular subject among black undergraduates. The statistics show that for 2011-12 there were 1,350 black history undergraduates, 1.8 per cent of the total. During 2012-13 there were 1,340 black history undergraduates, 1.9 per cent of the total.

How are we to explain the fact that a subject that is generally popular with undergraduates and within the wider black communities is so unpopular with black undergraduates? It should also be borne in mind that Hesa figures relate to “historical and philosophical studies”. It could therefore be the case that the actual number of history undergraduates is lower than the Hesa figures suggest.

We can find no statistics for the numbers and ethnicity of postgraduate students but we believe that, currently, there are only six black history PhD students in the country. Such low numbers will of course have an effect on the numbers of black academic historians. We believe that there are only four such academics in the country, and we might add that none of these has the rank of professor.

It is our view, based on our own experience and that of many others, that young black people are being dissuaded by a variety of factors from pursuing a subject that can provide them with the appropriate awareness and critical skills to orient themselves in the modern world, while the field of history is being effectively closed to those from certain minority backgrounds. Anecdotal information from schools suggest that, for a number of reasons, young black people increasingly view history as a “white, middle-class pursuit”.

Hakim Adi
Reader in history, University of Chichester

Shantelle George
PhD student, Soas, University of London

Abdul Mohamud
Secondary school teacher

Angelina Osborne
PhD student, University of Hull

Esther Stanford-Xosei
PhD student, University of Chichester

Sharon Yemoh
Secondary school teacher

Christopher Zembe
PhD student, De Montfort University

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