The doors to the mainstream are shut to pioneers

March 4, 2005

With the UK academy still reluctant to give recognition to black academics and black studies, Mandy Garner asked a group of academics why change has been so slow in coming and how things might be improved

In the autumn, The Times Higher carried a series of articles about black academics who had left the UK to pursue their research, mainly in the US. Many felt the UK did not offer them the opportunity to further their careers or develop their research interests. The articles were published as figures revealed that there were only about 40 black professors in Britain.

Six months on, we gathered a group of academics to debate what needs to be done to gain black academics better representation in British higher education. The debate took place just before last week's report that black academics in the Association of University Teachers are considering setting up a lobbying network because of concerns about a lack of representation by the union.

At our debate were Hakim Adi, a reader in the history of Africa and the African diaspora at Middlesex University; Kate Hudson, head of the department of social and policy studies at London South Bank University; Lena Dominelli, director of the Centre for International Social and Community Development at Southampton University; and Heidi Mirza, professor of racial equality studies at Middlesex.

All spoke of their own personal concerns about, or experience of, the lack of prospects for black academics.

Dominelli, the president of the International Association of Schools of Social Work, said a high proportion of her black PhD students had left the country to pursue their research. "In 20 years of teaching, 11 of my black PhD students have gone out of the country to continue their work. I can think of only two black students who have remained, and they are struggling for recognition despite being very active. They have not risen very quickly compared with some of my white students who barely got PhDs."

Most of those who left had gone to the US, where they found more research opportunities and better pay, and they did not have to struggle on a series of temporary contracts. Dominelli said she had a "brilliant" black PhD student for whom she was "constantly writing reference letters" for short-term contracts. "I would have expected this student to get a permanent job by now," she said.

She added that the depth of the problem was illustrated by the fact that the first Asian professor of social work in the UK had only just been appointed. She could not think of a black professor of social work.

Mirza said many talented black PhD students were shunning academe. "They are going into community organisations, non-governmental organisations, activist organisations and the voluntary sector. They are committed to the issues. They find fulfilment in working where they feel more valued and can work in teams."

Most of Adi's contemporaries have gone abroad. Adi said he himself had considered doing so, but his research - on the African diaspora in the UK - is so connected with the UK that he feels it would be "cutting off his nose to spite his face".

Mirza, who has worked at Brown University, an Ivy League institution, said that going to the US was not a "soft option" because the teaching load was demanding. She returned to the UK for personal reasons, but said she often wondered why she remains in academia. She felt isolated in her work and believed that some colleagues found her subject area threatening. One academic said of Mirza's racial equality studies post: "They are giving out professorships for anything these days."

Hudson said that although a larger percentage of young black people were entering higher education than young whites (relative to each group's total population), black academics, even at inner-city universities such as hers, were disproportionately concentrated in the lower pay scales.

Participants expressed frustration that many of these issues had been discussed for more than 20 years but that little had changed. Indeed, there was a feeling that things were going backwards. Dominelli noted that the syllabus of social work courses had dropped reflection about race in the early Nineties. "You really notice the difference in students' essays now.

They hardly mention race. And if they do not understand race, how can they practise in a good way?"

Among the obstacles cited by participants as hindering the progression of blacks in academia were increasing competition between universities, a vocational slant in courses and the research assessment exercise. Dominelli pointed to poor representation of black academics on the 2008 RAE panels.

She added that as the exercise would place more emphasis on the money academics could capture with their research, it left race-related research in a Catch-22: it brought in little funding because it was not valued.

Dominelli felt there was much prejudice against the research interests of many black academics - personal experiential research rather than large empirical studies. "We need to think differently about what constitutes research," she said. And she added that there should be a research council for identity-based research. Mirza said the Economic and Social Research Council had been debating for five years whether to fund a small programme on race and ethnicity. "They cannot agree at the top levels. They use peer review as quality control for funding research, but peer review can be the basis for maintaining the status quo."

Dominelli added: "Critical ground-breaking scholarship is not seen as important. (The black cultural theorist) Stuart Hall would be less likely to get his research known now. You have to have the right connections.

Black academics are at the margins, and their research is seen as biased."

Part of the reason for this is that white people are still reluctant to discuss their colonial history and their attitudes to race. "A deconstruction of whiteness is not happening," Dominelli said.

Adi echoed the thought: "There is little provision of courses that include black perspectives. It is about what makes money. The political and financial climate is against subjects that question Eurocentrism and take approaches that involve people looking at their own experiences. It's about what kind of education system we have, whose experiences it is serving, whose expertise is valued."

Mirza and Adi highlighted how vital the issue was when they said that black students' experiences as undergraduates were a factor in turning them off academia.

Mirza said she had been asked to look at a case in which a black student had complained about a history course that, he said, ignored slavery and spoke only about the benefits of colonialism. "The complaint was impressive. This person could have been a PhD student. He had another perspective, and the teaching staff felt threatened by him and saw him as a troublemaker. That is alienating. People do not want to invest time in a system that does not give them anything back, that does not value who they are or what they have to say. You do not want to spend your whole time justifying yourself."

Another constraint on blacks in academe was their failure to imagine themselves in lofty academic positions, Mirza said. Adi said he had never seen himself as an academic - he fell into academe because it was the only way he could teach African history.

There was not much optimism about what could be done to improve things in the current climate. Some participants thought universities should begin funding black studies, even though it was agreed that it would not be seen as a money-spinner. Mirza said talk of introducing black studies courses had "fallen off the agenda. The approach now is instrumental. It is hard to get universities to do something more exploratory".

Substantial change to the curriculum would be won only by sustained social pressures, Adi said, in the way that the US civil rights movement had driven the growth of black studies in America.

Dominelli noted, however, that the case for black studies was in some ways undermined by postmodernism. "It has fragmented people. It does not encourage collective groupings. Postmodernists would argue that black is an essentialist category and is therefore meaningless."

Mirza said that black academics in Britain would not achieve the momentum needed to effect change without "gatekeepers" to open the doors. A black studies discipline could develop the necessary leaders despite the danger of ghettoisation, she said.

She also said UK research had to develop "a culture of mentoring", noting that PhD students in the US could get funding to work as research assistants on issues such as broadening the curriculum.

Hudson said that her university was starting a black academics' network to promote black staff. But Adi, Dominelli and Mirza were not convinced that such networks worked. "The approach is 'are you feeling marginalised? Well, get together and discuss it and feel even more marginalised'," Mirza said.

"They assume that you will naturally bond because you are black. But what you want to do is meet the powerful white people who can do something about the situation."

"The problem is the way it is done," Dominelli added. "It is tokenistic and talks of integration on the basis that everyone is equal, but power relations are not equal. They leave black academics to sort out the problem, so they end up having to do twice as much as other academics and there is no cultural change. The people in power have to ask what they need to do to open doors. Universities are good at doing the minimum necessary.

They need to fund changes in the curriculum to include black perspectives."

Although the participants agreed that widening participation would bring more black students into universities - albeit mainly the new universities - the general feeling was that this would not necessarily promote change. Top-up fees would deter working-class students from entering higher education, let alone pursuing an academic career, Adi said. "Widening participation is about getting bums on seats, about money, not widening knowledge," Mirza said.

However, all agreed that there was a big desire for change among both white and black people and a growing realisation that social issues were all linked. Hudson spoke of "an intense moral outrage", and Mirza conceded that individual personal acts, such as a black student going into higher education, could be important.

Dominelli said big social change tended to occur on a cyclical basis. Mirza said she would advise black people against a career in higher education at the moment. Dominelli advised them to be "choosy" about which institutions they attended because some were better than others.

Adi, however, said it was crucial that, despite the problems, black academics did not give up. "It is important that we are still here. There is a danger that black people just leave British academia and so we do not have a critical mass to effect change. We are pioneers. Part of our role is to agitate and encourage other black academics. Without that it will certainly not change."

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