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 (1)

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.


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