Race discrimination in academia 'has not improved' over past 20 years

Black and ethnic minority academics still suffer racism, study finds. Elizabeth Gibney reports

April 11, 2013

Racism in UK academia remains as prevalent as it was 20 years ago, the author of a study looking at the experiences of black and minority ethnic academics has said.

Of 65 academics interviewed for the study, the overwhelming majority said they had experienced some kind of racism, either direct or indirect. Only two said gender had had more of an impact on their careers than race.

Some respondents said that they felt they had to work “doubly hard” compared with white colleagues - publishing more, submitting more grant applications and getting more international recognition - to be considered for promotion.

“If there are two people, one an ethnic minority, one a [white] English person vying for the same job, I believe they’ll take the English person, unless the ethnic minority is doing much more, at a higher level,” said one interviewee for the study.

Respondents also reported experiencing subtle racism, such as feeling that there was a lack of trust in their abilities or that white colleagues’ body language excluded them from activities. Others said they felt hampered in putting themselves forward for senior positions.

“I don’t think things have changed very much in the academy from 10 or 20 years ago,” the report’s author, Kalwant Bhopal, reader in education at the University of Southampton, told Times Higher Education. “I think the situation has changed in the sense that we have equality policies in place that are much stronger, but I still feel there exists an underlying subtext of racism.”

Respondents had contrasting views on the impact of the research excellence framework on equality.

Although some welcomed its objective criteria as “neutralising ethnicity”, others were sceptical that publications from journals across the world, or articles that focused on specific areas of the world, would be treated equally.

Dr Bhopal also pointed out that the proportion of minority ethnic groups on REF panels is lower than in the comparable academic staff population, something the UK funding councils said they would try to rectify in panel appointments in 2013.

Ethnic minorities are already under-represented in academia, making up 12.6 per cent of academic staff in 2011-12, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. This compares with 14 per cent of the population in the 2011 England and Wales census.

This is exacerbated in more senior positions, with black and minority ethnic staff making up just 4.5 per cent of senior managers and 7.4 per cent of professorial roles in 2010-11. It is often cited that Gerald Pillay at Liverpool Hope University remains the UK’s only minority ethnic vice-chancellor; however, official data are not currently collected.

Among the report’s recommendations are that universities should acknowledge that discrimination and exclusionary practices exist and appreciate that they impact negatively on minority ethnic staff and their careers.

It adds that universities should develop mentoring systems, appointing senior minority ethnic academic staff as mentors, and ensure that as far as possible there is ethnic diversity on internal REF groups.

Dr Bhopal’s findings will be published by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and presented at the American Educational Research Association annual conference in San Francisco later this month.


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Reader's comments (3)

This study simply confirms previous research - Equality Challenge Unit, 2009 'The experience of black and minority ethnic staff working in higher education.' This is a long standing problem that was reported 14 years ago - Carter, J., Fenton, S., & Modood, T. (1999), 'Ethnicity and employment in higher education.' However, it is not helped by studying and writing about 'black and minority ethnic' people as if we are a homogenous group with the same experiences. For example, Chinese people are actually over-represented in academia relative to their population size and Indians are well-represented. However, the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, African Caribbean and African groups are very small populations spread thinly across British universities. Homogenizing visible minority groups makes a dire situation look much better than it really is. So in fact Black academics (African and Caribbean) account for just 1.32% of all academics and just 0.4% of professors (2010/2011 - custom data supplied by HESA in 2012). But this reality is masked by the discourse on 'black and minority ethnic people.' Hence Black British Academics: is a new network and directory for African Caribbeans to make visible both academy members from this group and the issues we face. It is also designed to promote interaction, support and collaboration between members. We can never rely on legislation to solve all problems or from change to come from the same institutions where discrimination and disadvantage originate. But the support that comes from the network can at least encourage those struggling to get a foot in the door to persist, and hopefully those that experience some of the racism mentioned in this article, will, with support and encouragement stay the distance.
I think we oversimplify this issue. There is no doubt that BME collegaues will feel discriminated against, rightly or wrongly. However, the universalist outlook to this claim has simply not helped matters. In my view, the major problem is that of 'gate keeping'. Access to higher levels, acceptance or indeed, whatever else colleagues feel prevented from achieving is provided by 'gatekeepers'. The main problem, therefore, is with gate keepers. Who would they admit into rarefied circles? The only way in which policy can help is by creating an instrument for regulating the work of gate keepers. To do this, policy makers must first acknowledge that there are gatekeepers and that they wield significant powers in terms of access. No university sets out with a pre-determined goal of excluding minorities. But that is the university as an organisation. It is the individuals who have respionsibility for implementing these decisions/policies whoi are ultimately responsible for what happens within each university. Let us face it, it is almost natural or indeed, inevitable that people are more inclined to want to work with others who they sense might share their own cultural and historical values. Some people just feel uncomfortable with what is different. I am not saying it is right, it is just the reality.Looks like there is a long and perhaps unending battle to be fought here.
As a Black academic I am not only pleased to see issues of race discrimination and homogenizing of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people being publicly discussed but also to hear about the prospect of these being driven into the mainstream by organisations for Black and Minority Ethnic academics. Of course the ways in which race discrimination takes place are much wider and deeper than those mentioned in the lead article. I would also say that addressing these issues is more than kneejerk policy changes made by some of the very people carrying out the discrimination. Identifying the fact that people from different ethnic groups are seen and treated differently is an integral component of developing our understanding of race discrimination as is the successful development of organizations such as the Black British Academics, the Black Educators Association and the Black and Minority Ethnic Academics Association which reflect the need to fill a gaping hole within which universities seem to be able to infringe upon the rights of BME academics almost with impunity. The tendency to see university as if it’s immune from the inequities that plague the other tiers of the education system has left both BME students and workers at the mercy of a system with equalities records that in some areas make worthy challenge to the police force (pre and post Macpherson). Whilst the latter are now infamous for their canteen culture of racism in academia we have yet to put a specific name to the form and content of race discrimination. There is a desperate need for us to come together to push for more research into and collective action against the contradictory culture of academia. On the one hand held up for all to aspire too, universities are seen as champions of meritocracy, havens of free expression and seekers of truth. Publically they openly project themselves as leading in the creation of neutral and objective knowledge to advance things like equitable practices in employment. On the other hand, especially for BME academics the realities of being lecturers, professors and researchers include being confronted daily by the caring sharing faces of people for whom race remains an inert theory confined to books. This is of course assisted by colour blindness, which is projected and perpetuated as a way of knowing and of being …it’s worth remembering that clinically (within medicine) the term is also used to describe an impediment in sight. In this cultural setting really opposing race discrimination is hard as colour blindness is stifling, even the mention of race (outside of the context of a book) is severely restricted, and for BME academics forced to face up to race discrimination , such mention counts as a negative mark against them. In my own experience, on the same day as discussing with a manager the possibility (amongst others) that the actions of my colleagues could be perceived has racists, the said manager secretly (in my absence and without my consent) informed my colleagues and making it appear has if I had made a direct accusation against them. This was an act of mismanagement that pitted the white members of the staff group against its one Black member and lead to a secret agreement between the said manager and the programme leader which enabled the latter to withdraw cooperation and basically refuse to work with me on the basis that I might accuse him/her of racism. Whether to hide the initial act of mismanagement of a race discrimination case or to conceal the culminating actions based on race, the manager utilises the bureaucratic culture of the disciplinary process though using a string of unconnected issues. In its theory the disciplinary then pits the individual against the university by problematizing the competency of BME academics to meet the needs of the university. It also takes the focus away from manager. Once attached, the label of incompetence enables an unspoken convergence of interests, which provides the majority white of academics, administrators and managers with the green light to overtly police and punish BME academics; all which is of course enabled without even mentioning race. I know from talking to other Black academics that such experience is not specific to me. Alongside requiring the collective energies of BME organisations to provide support to individuals and to champion their individual and collective causes, the movement to draw back race discrimination must also include critical challenge to Universities as well as impacting upon the policies of funding agencies to support much more research. Sonia Davis

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