Pushing politics

Vicky Randall says women are forging their way into government, but ethnic minorities remain under-represented

August 27, 2009

After spearheading campaigns to boost the number of women studying politics, the chairwoman of the Political Studies Association (PSA) has turned her attention to increasing ethnic minority representation in the discipline.

Vicky Randall, professor of government at the University of Essex, said the PSA's 2006 survey of the field found that only 3.7 per cent of the academics who took part described themselves as "non-white".

"We're planning to follow this up with an additional survey, through heads of department, to identify the 'leakage points' - at what stage in the process do black and ethnic minority students and postgraduates fall away?" she said.

The PSA is also looking at introducing a mentoring system for staff from under-represented groups.

Professor Randall, who is only the second female chair of the PSA, said there had been much progress in improving the representation of women in political studies.

"We now have six women, including myself, on the PSA's executive committee," she said. However, this progress has not been replicated in mainstream British politics.

She said the reception given to Harriet Harman, deputy leader of the Labour Party, when she recently criticised male-dominated leadership suggests "there is still a reluctance to concede that this is a genuine shortcoming".

The number of young people displaying an interest in politics is rising, with a steady increase in students taking the subject at degree level and A level since 2001. This is at odds with the common perception of a widespread lack of interest in politics - and voting - among the young.

"The disillusionment is with conventional mainstream politics, but there is a lot of interest in less conventional areas, such as anti-globalisation movements and anti-poverty campaigns," said Professor Randall.

She added that international developments such as the September 11 attacks and the Western response to them have also sparked concern and anxiety which may be translating into enthusiasm for international politics.

Despite the demand for politics courses, the PSA is concerned about the discipline's future funding. While a threatened departmental closure at the University of Liverpool has not come to pass, a PSA survey last year found several other departments at risk.

"Political studies can't stand alone on this," said Professor Randall. "We need to align more effectively with other social sciences organisations. We know that the British Academy is concerned, as is the Academy of Social Sciences. We should be working with them so that we are all singing the same tune."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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