Desperately seeking inspiration

January 26, 2007

How can academe attract more black students when its street cred lags way behind football and rap music? Angela Foster investigates

There are four times as many black footballers as there are black professors. If you come out of prison after four years, you have got more credibility as a black male (than if you take a degree)." So says theologian Robert Beckford, underlining the uphill battle facing black academics in the UK - struggling for recognition in the institutions they work in on the one hand and from young people in their communities on the other.

"Academics are just not sexy enough," says educationist Tony Sewell. "In the US, there is a whole troupe of black intellectuals, such as Cornell West, who go on roadshows. They are almost like academic rap stars. But in the UK there's no equivalent. There's just not enough of us to have an impact."

Sewell has written that peer pressure is the biggest barrier to learning for black boys. Where once education was seen as the path to advancement by their parents and grandparents, it is now regarded as uncool and even "white".

Millionaire footballers and rap stars have become role models for a whole generation of youngsters who are sold the dream that a lack of qualifications is no barrier to success through music videos and the media.

It's not just a problem for black youngsters. "If you tell a white working-class kid you are a footballer who plays for England, you will get more kudos than if you are a professor of astrophysics," Beckford points out. "But for communities where there are more role models in sports and entertainment, it becomes a bipolar existence of either being 'of the streets' or being bourgeois - the streets are considered an authentic black experience, and everything else is considered white."

Paul Gilroy, a leading black academic and cultural critic, believes it is a "generational problem". "When people migrated here, many of them had a desire to see their children educated because they wanted them to do better, and they saw education as the only means of achieving that. Now that sentiment has faded out. To be educated is seen as a sellout. The very idea of wanting to take on the life of the mind is something that means very little."

It's all the more worrying in the face of the statistics. Just over 44 per cent of Black Caribbean pupils gained five good GCSE grades in 2006 compared with an average of 56 per cent, according to figures from the Department for Education and Skills. Girls fared better, with the gap between Black Caribbean boys and girls widening from 16.1 percentage points in 2005 to 16.5 per cent. More than half of Black African pupils attained the GCSE benchmark.

A leaked report ordered by the Government, which has yet to be published, says "systemic racial discrimination" in UK schools is to blame for some of the problems facing black youngsters (1,000 are permanently excluded each year, and blacks were found to be disciplined for less serious behaviour than white pupils). But of the bright pupils who do make it through the system, many are put off the idea of pursuing a career in academia. Faced with being saddled with debt, they opt instead for careers in law or local government.

Gilroy, who headed the African American studies department at Yale University before taking up a chair at the London School of Economics, said: "In America, what was nice was to be able to give four or five grants each year to people who wanted to do PhDs in areas of black culture and history. Here, the best black students come to me and say: 'I am wondering if I should do a PhD or be a lawyer.' Most of them don't do a PhD because they can't afford to and it's more lucrative to be a lawyer."

The lack of status of black intellectuals is also a factor. Research by the Association of University Teachers found that, on average, black academics earn 88 per cent of their white colleagues' income. And black staff tend to be concentrated at lower levels, with 88.1 per cent of lecturers and 95.8 per cent of professors being white.

Beckford says: "Higher education is incredibly elitist and hierarchical, and race and class matter. I have friends who have given up because they couldn't get a job. We are in a system that claims to be meritocratic, but is just as problematic a space to negotiate as walking down a street in a notoriously white, right-wing, racist area."

Beckford, who has written five books and made several TV documentaries, says his work is still not valued despite his relatively high profile.

"Going up for promotion I was told by a head of department: 'You are not a recognised scholar,'" he says. He has been appointed reader at Oxford Brookes University, but he says: "Most people (in my position) don't get beyond senior lecturer."

Lez Henry, a sociology lecturer, has struggled to land full-time posts. He says: "All kinds of barriers are faced by black members of staff when seeking full-time lectureships or even selection for readerships that lead to a professorship. They are more likely to be in temporary or short-term contractual positions, which means their academic futures are uncertain. I have found it nigh-on impossible to get a full-time contract."

Sewell believes African Caribbean students are put off the idea of applying for top universities such as Oxford, underlined by the revelation that London Metropolitan University has more black undergraduates than the whole of the Russell Group put together.

"We need students to go beyond the boundaries. It's hard to ask an 18-year-old from Harlesden to do that, but we have to encourage it. On the whole, students are not breaking the mentality of the comfort zone," Sewell says.

Henry argues that universities should be doing more outreach work in minority ethnic areas, such as learning days for A-level students, to give them the chance to attend lectures and to demystify the university experience. Gilroy has called for a centre of black thought to help secure a foundation for future Black Caribbean intellectuals.

He says: "It's terrible that Britain doesn't have a centre for the study of black culture and history - that's a measure of how marginal these issues are. It would be a place for people to pursue and develop forms of social policy around questions of hierarchy and to archive the struggles of black people's lives in this country."

Beckford agrees. He says that just as stars chat-show host Oprah Winfrey and film director Spike Lee have invested in black university projects in the US, a similar campaign is needed here with our own black high-flyers.

In the meantime, he believes that if the community won't come to education, then he will take it to them. He is setting up an access course in October in black culture at a Birmingham college for young black men at risk of getting involved with gun crime, and a prison MA programme for Black Caribbean inmates with first degrees. "You have to find other places to teach and engage the community with learning apart from university," he says. "If you don't do that, you won't turn them on to education."

Similarly, Sewell, a former lecturer at Leeds University, runs a science academy along the same lines as a football academy. Generating Genius offers science activities for talented 12 and 13-year-olds in the summer holidays.

"We select black boys who are good not at football or rapping but science,"

he explains. "They are treated like university students. They go to lectures and write research papers. I would challenge anybody to suggest that what they do at a football academy is any more interesting."

"You have to speak in tongues," Beckford adds. "The language of the academy, the language of the media and the language of the streets. What I am trying to do is say you can have both - you can be 'street' and write hip-hop lyrics, and you can be good in school - the two aren't mutually exclusive."

For information on Generating Genius, e-mail generatinggenius@yahoo.co.uk

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