The black hole in science ranks

January 24, 1997

British-born black youngsters are being confined to an arts and humanities ghetto. Universities pay service to their paucity in technical disciplines with just a few access courses

Look around any science, maths, engineering or numerate department of any college or university in Britain and you will find a curious phenomenon. At undergraduate level, you will be lucky to find a handful of black students. Asians, yes, Chinese, yes, but not black.

Then look at the postgraduate courses. Here, there are healthy numbers of black students. But they are not British-born. Mainly from west and east Africa, they have come to the United Kingdom to get their postgraduate qualifications and join departments where they find themselves the only black students.

I was one of these, taking a masters degree in chemical engineering at UMIST ten years ago, and have been working in a UK industrial company, where I am the only black employee.

When I outlined this phenomenon to my supervisor at UMIST, he replied: "It's the British disease, hypocrisy. Everyone knows about this problem, but no one wants to talk, or do anything, about it. It is ridiculous that black students like yourself, educated in Africa with an education system copied from the British model, should be able to come here and excel on our science and engineering postgraduate courses, while black students born and brought up in Moss Side, just a stone's throw from this building, will never come here, not because they are not able, but because our education system effectively excludes them from science and technology."

The African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology was formed as a result of the dismay of black scientists and engineers at the marked under-representation of black people in science, engineering and technology (SET) in the UK.

Institutions have woefully failed their black students. The hype surrounding the "over-representation" of black and ethnic minority students conceals some fundamental flaws regarding the ghettoised nature of this over-representation. Success in terms of participation which is analysed on the simplistic premise of the numbers of ethnic minority students entering, is inadequate in shedding light on this complex issue.

An age profile survey by Clara Connolly in 1994 using 1990/92 university entry data disclosed that nearly half of white male and over half of white female applicants enter higher education at 18, while Chinese, Indian and Bangladeshi applicants tend to enter a year later. However, only 6 per cent of African-Caribbean men enter at 18, and nearly 40 per cent are over 25 years old; 30 per cent of African-Caribbean women are also over 25 on entry (see table below).

I would support Ms Connolly's assertion that the phenomenon of black over-representation needs to be qualified in terms of differential entry-age patterns and under-representation in numerate and technical courses. It is crucial that the "good news" story of black over-representation in higher and further education be revealed for what it is - a hype.

Many black graduates are discovering when they apply for jobs that in used-car parlance they have been sold a lemon instead of a peach.

The relative over-representation of African-Caribbean students on arts and humanities courses means that they are most vulnerable to the growing spectre of graduate unemployment. With ever-growing numbers in higher education, their disillusionment is profound when they realise they have been short-changed, as their degrees are far less impressive to employers. The fact that their white and Asian counterparts had been similarly short-changed to a smaller degree, is scant consolation.

Universities, which claim to be champions of equal opportunities, would do well to put more effort into encouraging black students on to their numerate and technical courses than they put into simply enrolling more black students.

In further education the proliferation of black access courses has had a minimal impact on the participation of black students in numerate and technical courses at higher education level. The courses have become a patronising second-class academic ghetto for black academic staff as well as students.

The paucity of black access courses in maths, science and technology is breathtaking. In my survey of courses in colleges in Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Birmingham, Northampton, Wolverhampton and the London boroughs of Southwark, Wandsworth and Hackney, I found not a single black access course that provided a numerate or technical pathway into higher education.

They all provided the same limited route - the arts and humanities - with a curriculum over-dominated by black history and black studies modules. What is most disconcerting is the Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity of these courses since the same institutions provided technical and numerate pathways on their general access courses, which were mostly taken up by white and Asian students.

It is not surprising that black access entrants to higher education have the highest failure and drop-out rates. These "hot-house flowers" are unable to cope with the academic rigours of higher education. When I asked a senior lecturer in the law department of a northern university why his department continued to accept these students, his answer was illuminating: "We have to support our further education colleagues. Besides, black access students help to fill vacancies on our courses, and seeing as it is the only way we can get black students, they make our equal opportunities figures look good."

This is the same academic who had told me that the failure/drop-out rate for the black access entrants was as high as 80 per cent compared to 10 per cent for black students who entered with mainstream qualifications.

If they successfully complete their courses, many of these students end up in limited career fields like social work, youth and community work, and the caring professions. The very process of taking access courses means that black students are starting university four to five years later than their white and Asian counterparts, putting them at a further disadvantage when it comes to getting jobs.

Employers are unashamedly biased in favour of younger and numerate graduates, who are cheaper to employ, and far more amenable to being multiskilled. Is it any wonder then, that black graduates experience much higher levels of unemployment than their white or Asian counterparts, and are disillusioned about the benefits of their years in higher education?

Higher education is reaping what it has sown. Many postgraduate departments in SET faculties have enjoyed many fat years of complacency and smugness, feasting on the rich harvest of their African and Asian overseas students. That gravy train is now slowly on its way to the buffers. As concerns about the quality of UK degrees grow, these students are no longer prepared to suffer the racial and cultural isolation of British SET faculties, and are choosing instead to undertake their postgraduate courses in the United States and Canada, where there is a healthier racial mix in SET faculties at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and also in terms of academic staff.

The same "colour-blindness" which is prevalent on most university teacher training courses ends up producing primary and secondary teachers who perpetuate in our schools a "racial hierarchy of teacher expectation". This is the kind of subversive racial pecking order that operates in most schools. Asian and white pupils are expected, and even encouraged, to achieve in maths, science and technology, while black children are expected, and overly encouraged, to achieve in non-academic subjects like sport, music and the arts. This is racial stereotyping and a lot of effort will be needed to challenge and change teachers' attitudes and expectations of black students. Black pupils are painfully aware of the low expectations that most white teachers have of them. This awareness has a devastating and demotivating effect on their morale, achievements and aspirations.

Last year I received a letter from a young black student in Liverpool, expressing her fears as an African studying A-level mathematics, chemistry, physics and general studies with the intention of a career in chemical engineering.

There was no name - just a Liverpool address in Toxteth. My distress on receiving this letter prompted me to go to Liverpool on the following Sunday, to look for this young person. On meeting her, and her family, I was dismayed to hear their horror stories behind her desperation in writing to me secretly.

She is a very bright, very able and committed black girl, who, because of her academic ability is attending a selective school, which is in the top ten nationally. She and her parents told me of the severe difficulties they had encountered with some teachers and the Liverpool careers service in getting information and support regarding her career aspirations to study chemical engineering at university. At every step they encountered racial put-downs, such as "why don't you go into catering?", and "why not go in for teaching, and teach chemistry?" The message was loud and clear. Yes, we accept your daughter is bright, but we think she is overreaching herself, and we will only offer you support when her aspirations conform to our low expectations.

Through the support of the African-Caribbean network, she received prospectuses from a number of universities with chemical engineering departments, and has now been offered places for this coming year. Her story is distressing and frightening, because it begs the question: "If this is the support that our brightest and best youngsters are getting from the education system, what hope is there for the less able and committed?" The despair that many African and African-Caribbean parents feel about their children's educational outcomes, particularly in numerate and technical fields, has led some of them to undertake the desperate measure of sending their children to schools in Africa and the Caribbean. African parents in particular, have grave fears about whether their British-born children will be afforded the genuine opportunity to achieve the same high levels of numerate and technical qualifications and skills with which they came to Britain. It is a supreme irony that African and African-Caribbean parents living in the UK have to send their British-born children to schools in Africa and the Caribbean to acquire the education which they can then bring back to get jobs within the UK.

In multiracial Britain, it is crucial that the black community is enabled to fully participate and contribute to the advancement of science and technology as fully qualified professionals and practitioners. The imperative of social justice demands no less.


Percentage of students undertaking numerate (including SET) courses

Chinese 92, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi 75, White 48, African 55, African-Caribbean 3.

Elizabeth Rasekoala is founder of the African-Caribbean Network for Science and Technology, a national educational charity working for the advancement of the educational and career achievements and aspirations of African-Caribbean students in maths, science, technology and other related fields.

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