'Dire' career prospects

April 7, 2000

...this is the tiny proportion of ethnic minority and female professors employed in Britain's universities. Helen Hague reports on how the statistics published today could help in the battle against inequality in higher education.

Debbie Weekes used to be an academic at Nottingham Trent University, where she explored the reasons behind school exclusions. Now she works for the Windsor Fellowship, a charity that links young people from ethnic minorities with mentors to boost their life chances.

Weekes took up a research fellowship at Nottingham Trent after completing a doctorate on adolescent girls and sex education. When her contract ended she did not continue in academic life. Career prospects were, she says, "pretty dire".

Now pregnant with her second child, she needs to earn to support her family. The prevalence of short-term contract culture in universities was, she says, one reason for making the move to the voluntary sector. Weekes, 30, misses academic life, but still contributes to conferences.

Realistically, she does not envisage returning to a university career. "It's difficult to get your foot on the ladder and that's why so many people drop out. With short-term contracts, renewal can be dependent on so many things, from funding to the goodwill of line managers.

"Black academics seem to be over represented in part-time lecturing and research posts, which is discouraging. But it doesn't stop there. Many are stuck at lecturer level trying to get to senior lecturer, then if they do make it they can be stuck there. Getting beyond that can be very hard. It seems to be harder for people from ethnic minorities and women to get promoted."

Weekes finds her job satisfying - applying the theories she once studied to real life - but she still hankers for academia. "Ideally I would like to be back in there, but realistically I don't think it's something I'll be pursuing. The longer you stay out, the harder it is to get back in."

Young, black British academics are looking increasingly to the United States, she says. "Black academics who've done sabbaticals there say the climate is completely different. There are so many African Caribbeans in good jobs."

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