Distinct lack of ebony in the ivory towers

October 22, 2004

The UK has around 10 black female professors. Chris Bunting begins a three-part series on black academics with a report on the poor hiring record of supposedly liberal institutions.

Shortly after being told she was being elevated to a professorship, Cecile Wright received a call from an academic in her field.

"It was a white colleague of mine. He was clearly incensed and he said, quite bluntly, that I had been promoted only because I was black."

Four years later, Wright is still puzzling over the comment. It is not so much the offensiveness of what was said or the way in which it undermined her that keeps bringing her thoughts back to it. She says she has had to get used to overt racism from colleagues during her academic career. It is the bizarre separation from reality in her colleague's mind that fascinates Wright.

Wright, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, believes that British higher education, far from favouring black and other ethnic-minority academics, is riddled with racism. "The situation in academia with regard to race is absolutely disgusting and shocking. This is the one area of British cultural life where institutions are able to discriminate with impunity. In the health service or in schools, it would not be allowed to happen because there is more scrutiny. Universities are able to hide away because they are seen as liberal institutions," Wright says.

The statistics on racial minority representation in British academia suggests there is a serious problem. Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for 2002-03 - the latest available - show that people from racial minorities make up just over 10 per cent of those employed in academic jobs. It is a respectable figure, given that ethnic minorities made up only 8 per cent of the population and 8.3 per cent of the workforce in 2003.

However, the more the statistics are scrutinised, the more Wright's use of the word "shocking" seems appropriate. To start with, the majority of the 10 per cent are at the bottom of the ladder. People from non-white backgrounds make up 17 per cent of researchers, just under 9 per cent of lecturers, 6 per cent of senior lecturers and 4.4 per cent of professors.

About 60 per cent of whites have permanent contracts, compared with 38 per cent of non-whites.

There is a narrow ray of light if the figures are broken down by age. As a whole, ethnic-minority staff are younger than their white counterparts: 87 per cent are under 50 years of age compared with 70 per cent of whites. It might be argued, therefore, that the Hesa statistics give a misleading picture of a dynamic situation in which an ethnically diverse younger cohort has yet to replace an overwhelmingly white older generation.

Unfortunately, the argument begins to come apart when the make-up of academia's ethnic-minority population is examined. Fifty-four per cent of ethnic-minority academics in the UK whose nationalities are known are foreigners. Nearly 80 per cent of people of Chinese origin and 45 per cent of Indians come from abroad. What seems to be happening is that large numbers of young academics are taking low-ranked, casualised jobs. They are helping to mask the fact that, far from over-representing domestic ethnic communities in the way that academia's proud 10 per cent minority participation rate implies, British universities massively underemploy them.

Again, number-crunching reveals the extent of the problem. British people from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds make up 1.9 per cent of the population and 0.62 per cent of people in professional or managerial positions in wider society but only 0.4 per cent of academia, mainly in low grades. Despite being significantly over-represented in the student body, British Indians make up 1.7 per cent of the population, 1.93 per cent of managers and 1 per cent of academics.

Black people, defined as people who come from African roots, stand out because of the length of time their communities have been established in the UK and the extent to which they are excluded. About 1.3 per cent of academics in the UK are black, hardly a figure to be proud of because black people account for 2.1 per cent of the working-aged population and 1.9 per cent of managers or professionals. However, take away the 715 non-British black people from these figures, and we find a black British participation rate of about 0.7 per cent.

Even if the foreigners are counted, the picture remains just as depressing as this small group scales the academic career ladder. British and non-British black people make up 1.4 per cent of people in research positions, 1.6 per cent of lecturers, 0.66 per cent of senior lecturers or researchers and 0.29 per cent of professors. In the 2003 Hesa survey, there were around 40 professors out of more than 14,000 academics who classified themselves as "black", "black Caribbean" or "black other".

To better understand just how nonplussed Wright was by her colleague's idea about her preferential treatment, just look at how many other black female professors there are in the UK. According to the Hesa figures, there are around 10 black female professors - five of whom are in nursing.

If you search for black female professors outside medicine, there are very few. In the humanities and social sciences, disciplines that have produced endless hand-wringing articles about racial and gender issues over the past four decades, Wright appears to stand alone as the only black female professor.

"It is ironic really that someone should be saying I was only a professor because I was black," Wright says. "The higher you get up the academic system, the more isolated your situation becomes as a black academic. The career progression is almost nil. That is where the personal racism is likely to play out. For those few young black people who do come into academia, they see the experiences of people older than themselves in the system and they see an unhappy experience. We have had our stars, people such as Paul Gilroy, who have gone over to America because they see a future for themselves there."

Talk to black academics and the anecdotal evidence of racism is overwhelming, although most do not want to be identified for fear of being labelled as whingers. One 50-year-old, working as a business studies visiting lecturer in a new university, said he had watched numerous less qualified white colleagues moved into permanent posts while he had spent seven years on fixed-term contracts. Another had been passed over for a professorship in a research area in which he was an established authority in favour of a white academic who did not research in that area and was only a lecturer. Yet another said he had spent seven years applying for professorships but was constantly told that, although his research record was "impeccable", he was "not a match" for the departments. On two occasions, he said he had received apologies from successful white candidates who felt they should not have been given the job.

William Henry, a sociology lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, says: "I'm on a one-year contract and I'm finding it difficult to get shortlisted for jobs. There is always some barrier. They might say 'your book hasn't been published' or something like that, and then you have to watch people being employed who don't have these things. If you don't get your foot on the ladder in a full-time contract, what hope do you have of developing the profile you need higher up the ladder? Even getting published is a problem because the publishers don't take what I am writing about - black culture - seriously."

Richard Majors, a leading researcher into black participation in education, has been astounded by the racism he has found since moving to Britain from the US nine years ago. "These universities are some of the most elitist institutions in the world. They are some of the most conservative organisations, run by some of the most conservative people in this country," he says.

"You've this group of white guys making decisions about hiring, firing and promoting. How can you ask this group of people in their fifties or sixties, who often come from privileged backgrounds, to be sensitive about race, colour, class or consciousness?"

According to Majors, the problem stems not only from racist decision-making but also from a devaluing of the areas many black people want to research.

"If you want to research black issues, history or culture, it is seen as something not quite mainstream. This is not the case in the US. They might refer a student to you if they want to do something on black issues... but when it comes to the research assessment exercise or promotion into senior posts, they don't take this kind of thing seriously," he says.

"How do we change this? There are numerous things that have to be re-examined but, fundamentally, if we are going to have systematic change it has to start at a senior management level. If we can get a black person, or even a white person who is working class, we might be able to start the process that is needed in these institutions."

Until that revolution begins to happen across the system, Majors believes, Britain's ivory towers will remain whiter than many in these supposedly liberal institutions like to imagine.

  • Next week: exodus to the US?

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