Black Academia in Britain

The last few years have witnessed a growing concern with the challenges that peoples of African heritage – who I will define in this blog as Black peoples – face working and studying in the UK higher education system. Issues of the relative absence of Black people in influential positions have taken centre stage, alongside the direct and indirect discrimination that both black students and staff might confront. These are long standing issues. Indeed, for a number of years now, some British Black academics have made careers in North America more easily than in their domicile country. 

These challenges have been met by various recent initiatives, for example, a concerted effort to formally institute a British Black Studies, and the creation of a network of Black British Academics. To repeat, concerns as to the presence and experience of Black people in British academia are by no means new. But these concerns have been re-engaged with in a new context marked by austerity, the growing internationalisation of universities, and the radical changes to the public university system in Britain implemented by the coalition government who  are turning “multiversities” into “monoversities” organized singularly along the lines of commercial logic and interest.

Having been involved in a small way in recent re-engagements with the place and standing of Black academics and staff in UK academia I thought I would take stock and look at a few recent statistical and qualitative studies that appraise the state of Black academia in Britain, from both an academic and student standpoint.

Before I start, though, I want to say a few words about the internal composition of Black peoples in the UK. According to the 2011 Census, Black people now compose 3.3% of the population. However, the pronounced immigration over the last twenty or so years of peoples from the African continent has significantly shifted the demographics and dynamics of the Black population itself. Whereas, in the 1950s to 80s, Black Britain referred primarily to the “historical” African Diaspora – mainly those from an African-Caribbean background – it now predominantly refers to a new Diaspora with a continental background.

Continental African peoples, at least those who are not coming as refugees (and that is an important qualification), have generally arrived with more capital than the historical Diaspora had, and have inserted themselves into a different socio-economic context. However, my impression is that the children of the migrating parents, if they spend their formative time in the UK, start to experience many of the same differential treatments based on racial stereotyping as their peers from the historical Diaspora have long contended with. We are already a good two generations into the making of the new continental Diaspora (although continental Africans were always present in the UK). And racism, especially of the institutional kind, is a perverse kind of leveller.

Another point to note is the rise of the nebulous category of “mixed” (race science and ideology at its best). Interest in “mixed race” people has grown significantly, supposedly in line with the growth of this demographic. However, in relative terms, “mixed race” people have grown only by 1% as a share of the UK population. I do not want to say that this is not important, but I do think that the statistical fascination with this category of people is driven by ideology as much as anything else.

To my mind, the ideologythat “mixed race” people represent a triumph of multiculturalism and an inauguration of a post-racial future for Britain is quite strong. But my concern is specifically to do with what I perceive as the proliferation of racial stratifications and discriminations. And to understand and chart these proliferations the category of “mixed” is, I would suggest, in and of itself heuristically useless. (If you think about it carefully, how can one actually be a mixed – race? Surely it’s a plural?) For example, the child of a working-class white woman and working-class black man is going to have quite different experiences to the child of a first generation migrant black woman and a middle-class white English man.

In other words, perhaps more so than any other ethnic category, “mixed” hides a plethora of different cultural and social capitals. There is also the issue of colour and shade that does make a difference at the level of appearance and reception, and this should not be ignored, but is entirely muted by the category.  Finally, we should also consider that many “mixed” people might mark themselves as such on a census form but would identify as Black in many other social situations.

For all these reasons, in what follows I will at times concentrate on the  differences but also similarities between the experiences and status of historical and recent Diaspora, encoded imperfectly in the data as “Caribbean” and “African”. I will also differentiate UK-nationality from non-UK nationality people because I believe that at a general level the institutional racism – a consistent background hum – affects those who spend their formative years here in ways that are not necessarily experienced by those who migrate here for professional reasons later in their life. This will be especially important with regards to student experience, where I will focus primarily on UK-domicile Black students.

Additionally, I will for the most part avoid statistics referring to the category of “mixed”. The analytical weakness of this category as “stand-alone” is evident in the Equality Challenge Unit’s (ECU) data, wherein the weak justification for singling out “mixed” as an “ethnicity” for the first time in its 2013 report is “due to the growing size of this group”. This begs the prior question as to on what basis was it deemed to be a distinct ethnicity in the first place.

In what follows I am principally using the following reports: ECU Statistical Report 2010, 2013; the 2011 ECU Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic Staff in HE in England report; and the NUS Race for Equality Report 2011. I have also consulted Kalwant Bhopal and June Jackson’s Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics 2013 report, Philip Noden, Michael Shiner and Tariq Modood’s 2014 Black and Minority Ethnic Access to Higher Education: A Reassessment, and Black British Academic’s 2014 Race Equality Survey. So now I will look at issues to do with Black staff and then with Black students. I will finish with some broad assessments and provocations.

As a P.S., I am not looking into differences between SET and non-SET experiences (broadly, the natural sciences versus social sciences, humanities and arts). Much of what I will say applies to both broad groupings; however, there are differences that require useful elucidation, I will admit. I should also be honest and say that much of how I approach these issues is influenced by my working in the non-SET academic field.





There are 7730 Black people working in UK academia. As a percentage of the 367830 workers, Black staff constitute 2.10% of the total. When it comes to UK-national staff, Black workers constitute just 1.7% of the total of all workers in higher education institutions. Even if this is a rise of 0.2% from 2010, the UK census puts the Black presence at 3.3% of the normally-resident population. Therefore Black people are significantly under-represented in the higher education workforce.

Out of the total population of Black staff, both UK national and non-national and including “mixed” people who identify as such, 41.27% have a “Caribbean” background, and 51.06% have an “African” background, with the remainder categorised as “other” Black. These percentages reflect in some way the demographic shift within the wider Black population. However, continental African staff are significantly over-represented in the non-national category. So when the percentages are worked out only for UK-national staff, Caribbean staff form the majority (52%) compared to African staff (40%). Perhaps in the next 5 to 10 years this percentage will slowly start to reflect the wider UK demographic wherein Black people from a continental African background predominate. These trends will need to be observed keenly.

Overall, though, these statistics indicate that Black people are under-represented in staff positions across the university system. White staff make up 84.27% of the higher education working population and 86% of the broader UK population. If the differential between white university staff and the broader white population is 0.97, then we would expect, all things being equal, for Black staff to make up 3.2% of the university working population. However, they make up 2.10% of that population.

We could quibble over a 0.9% difference. And I can understand that point of view if you are a part of – or talking about – the 309,995 white workers. But if you are a minority, or talking about minorities, then the small shifts in percentages have massive effects in terms of presence and power.

Let us now take about the different job types available in academia (e.g. academic professional, secretary, security guard, non-academic manager). Starting with UK-national staff only, Black people constitute just 1.1% of the total of academic professionals. This is the smallest percentage of any ethnic group, although Chinese are close-by with 1.2%. Even when we add together non-national and UK-national staff we find that out of a total academic professional staff of 165445, 2560 are Black, that is, 1.54%, even though they constitute 3.3% of the British population. Alternatively, white academic professionals compose 87.45% of the total and are over-represented in terms of being 86% of the broader population.  In contrast, 6.91% of white workers (both UK-national and non-national) are employed as cleaners, catering assistants, security officers, porters and maintenance workers; while 19.27% of Black staff are employed in these roles.

Thus, Black people are significantly under-represented in academic roles and significantly over-represented in manual jobs.

Let’s now move on to the differentials that ensue from the type of job contracts held. There is little difference between the relative percentage of holders of teaching-only and teaching-and-research contracts between white and Black academic staff (UK-national and non-national). And in terms of UK-national staff specifically, the relative proportion of full time to part time posts is consonant between white and Black staff at approximately 63% to 37%. However, there is relatively more Black staff on fixed term contracts (34.8%) than white staff (31.6%). What is more, within the part time category, 61.32% of Black staff are on fixed-term contracts as opposed to 53.98% of white staff.

So while both UK-national constituencies share the same percentage of full to part time staff, relatively more white academics than black academics are contracted in permanent/open positions and relatively more black academics occupy the most tenuous academic contract: the fixed-term part time.

For non-UK national academic staff, these differences are a little more accentuated: 57.9% permanent/open and 42.1% fixed for white staff, compared to 51% permanent/open and 49% fixed for black staff. This difference could speak to the cultural and social capital that non-national white staff might accrue hailing largely from old British dominion countries or the US as opposed to Black staff, some of whom might come from the same countries but many of whom would not. There has been much work done on the racist determinants of perceived geo-cultural differences regarding professional competency and comparability.

More serious disparities and under-representations exist when it comes to the relative seniority of Black academics in comparison to other ethnicities. Putting together UK-national and non-national academics, we find that 92.39% of professors (15905) in the UK are white, and 0.49% (85) professors are Black. The percentage of professors who are Black is significantly lower than for any other minority. So in both absolute and relative terms there is a massive under-representation of Black professors, especially Black women who perhaps count for just 15 of those 85 Black professors. In Bhopal and Jackson’s recent report on the experience of BME academics one such professor recounts her feelings of alienation that emanate from this under-representation: “I am always a black woman. If you look around, when I go to the professorial meetings in this university, they are dominated by men. I am the only black person there. But I am also one of a very very small number of women.”

The picture is similar when it comes to academics in senior management roles: 2.2% of white UK-national academics occupy such roles compared to 1.1% of Black UK-national academics. Let us again talk absolute numbers: just 15 Black UK-national academics occupy senior management roles. How many of them are women? I don’t know. But zero non-UK Black academics occupy such roles. None at all. And, as a percentage of both UK-national and non-national senior managers overall, Black academics constitute just 0.52%.

A significant reason for this non-representativeness relates to networks that early-career Black academics are rarely introduced into. And there are many reports of Black PhDs being neglected relative to their supervisor’s treatment of his or her white supervisees. In my limited experience, the lack of mentoring for early and mid-career Black academics is a significant issue that can only be redressed pro-actively through schemes such as the University of London’s B-Mentor project.

Whatever the reason, the extreme paucity of Black academic presence at the top – both in terms of professoriate and senior-management – also translates into salary differentials. 29.4% of white UK-national and non-national academics earn over 50,000GBP as opposed to 17.7% of Black UK-national and non-national academics. Black academics are also significantly behind all other ethnicities in terms of the percent of them who earn in this bracket.  

Presence and power are related. I would not for one moment assume that a Black person around a table of white (and other BME) people will automatically represent Black interests (whatever they might be). In fact, the hyper-visibility that comes with being in a department where you are the only BME academic might make you feel far too vulnerable to voice any concerns about race and racism. It is not uncommon, for example, for BME academics to avoid taking part in “race groups”. Indeed, you might be worried that to be associated with a race would tend to de-professionalise you in the eyes of your colleagues: white academics are usually, simply, “academics”; Black academics are always Black, and it is not necessarily by choice.

Nevertheless, the presence of BME people around the tables of senior management can make a big difference in terms of their presence itself mitigating against some of the more thoughtless behaviour that comes with belonging to and being surrounded by a dominant group (of any kind).  This is sorely needed. For example, one institution consulted in an ECU survey declared that, because they only had a few BME staff, race was not an issue for them.

Additionally, the near-total absence of Black academics in senior positions reproduces particular assumptions of limited competency that accompany racial/gender stereotypes, the implicit biases of which are well documented. One of the most debilitating assumptions, in this regard, is that a professional mistake or weakness must be due to one’s race rather than due to a simple matter of context. Because of this assumption, Black academics can often suffer from over-scrutiny by senior colleagues and, like many other BME groups, can be overlooked for promotions or not encouraged to reply.

We should not ignore the fact that straightforward bullying and mentally debilitating racial harassment are not uncommon, and this seems to disproportionately affect Black women academics. Many of us will know at least one such story. It should also be noted, in this respect, that Black academics have a younger demographic than all other ethnicities including white; and amongst UK-national Black academics, women form the majority at 61.3%: this is the highest percent of women in any ethnic group including white. Youth, gender and race; any one element can feed an implicit bias of sub-competency to greater or lesser effect. Now combine them all.

It might be no surprise to learn, then, that BME academics as a whole leave their current institution at a higher rate than their white counterparts. In 2013, 22% of BME academics left compared to 15% of white academics. Moreover, if they leave academia as a whole, BME academics are far less likely to have retired for this reason than their white counterparts and somewhat more likely to no longer be in regular employment than their white counterparts.




Many of the disparities and challenges that face Black academics also affect Black students, especially those who are UK-domicile. Let us first look at the broad demographics.

Black students make up 6% of UK-domicile students in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined. If we isolate England, Black students then make up 6.9% of the UK-domicile student population, and this figure in relative terms is more than double the representative percentage of Black people as part of the general population (3.3%). In fact, Black students have enjoyed the biggest increase amongst BME groups over the last decade – from 4.4% in 2003/4 to the present number. Things are looking extremely positive here.

Let’s look a little deeper, though.

4.2% of first year UK-domicile students are from a Black African background, 1.5% from a Black Caribbean background, and 0.3% are “Black other”. This raises the question as to whether the increase in Black students has come mainly via those from a Black African background who are over-represented more than their Black Caribbean counterparts. I mention this just to suggest that the relative over-representation of Black students might not be the result of opening pathways through to university but rather due to actual or residual social capital being carried over by first generation migrant parents with aspirations of university education for their children.

It should be said here that first generation Caribbean parents had very similar aspirations some decades ago, hence the creation of supplementary schools in the UK by Black parents who thought that their children’s education in Britain was sub-standard, not to mention racist. I wonder how the dynamic of the new constellation of Black students will work out two or three generations down the line.

Anyway, taught Masters programmes also demonstrate an over-representation of UK-domicile Black students similar to the undergraduate scene. But this is not the case at PhD level, where Black students constitute 3.1% of the UK-domicile student demographic. Still,  this percentage remains  very equitable.

However, 46.2% of those Black PhD students are in part-time study, and this is the biggest percent by far of part-time students across all ethnic groups including white. I would therefore suggest that Black PhD students have to tackle pronounced problems in funding and paying for their studies. This can often hold negative ramifications for career progression; here we might be seeing a causal link between differentials in student experience and staff represenation amongst UK-domicile Black academics.

This point returns us to the importance of investigating the ways in which black students, albeit over-represented at undergraduate level, face particular challenges in academia, challenges that, as we will see, seem to lead to differential attainment levels.

The first noticeable point is that Black students tend to be over-represented in less prestigious universities. Infamously, Oxford accepted just one Black Caribbean student in 2009. And the acceptance rate of Black candidates for Oxford in 2010 was 14% as opposed to 24% for white students. Just as tellingly, in recent years three universities in London have held more than half of all UK-domicile Black students: London Metropolitan, South Bank, and East London. (And 17.4% of all UK-domicile London students are Black).

Let’s take one statistic as a further example: in 2007-8 one university, London Met, accepted 6,115 black students whereas in the same year all the institutions that make up the Russell group accepted 7,815 black students. Russell Group universities should have 25,000 Black students if they are to be representative of the general population: they have, instead, in the most recent stats that I could find, only 11,000less than half of a fair representation. Incidentally, a recent NUS report noted a perception amongst BME students that they would be more likely to experience racism in a Russell Group institution.

It is fair to say that social-economic disadvantages come into play here. Many students from a poorer background cannot afford to study away from their home. And most (but not all) prestigious institutions are not based in or sufficiently near socio-economically deprived areas. A recent study sponsored by the LSE suggests that socio-economic barriers (the type of school attended and number of A-levels taken) account for the fact that Black students are less likely to target elite institutions.

However, even with all other factors taken into account (including socio-economic) the report notes that Black African candidates (along with Bangladeshi candidates) receive on average five extra rejections per one hundred applications than white students, while Black Caribbean applicants receive three extra rejections. While we could posit that foreign-sounding names might have a part to play in discriminating against Black African applicants, this would be far less the case with Black Caribbean applicants, leading to the possibility that racial stereotyping is also in effect at interview level.

I can say, having taken part in undergraduate interview processes at Oxford for two years, and having undertaken this duty with a colleague who was genuinely and actively committed to student diversity, white-home-counties-accent-upper-middle-class-male privilege is most definitely hard to neutralise  when it comes to the kind of social and cultural capital a student can wield at these interviews.      

London Met, South Bank and East London are fine universities in and of themselves, and I know of many fantastic scholars and students undertaking cutting-edge work in these institutions. However, in ranking systems that employers look at, these institutions feature fairly low down. The point here is not to say that Black students shouldn’t go to these institutions but to point out the inequitable nature of the clustering of Black students in such institutions as a reflection of broader sector inequalities.

On that note, let’s look at what happens to students at the end of the year. With regards to the UK-domicile population, 91.6% of white students continue into the next year at their institution, 1.6% transfer and 6.9% leave higher education. For UK-domicile Black students the comparable figures are 85.3%, 3.5% and 11.2%. In other words, more Black students transfer from their institution and leave university all together relative to their white counterparts. In fact, Black students transfer or leave university at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. We should recall here the cognate statistics regarding BME academic staff who leave their institutions at a higher frequency than their white counterparts.

Why are Black students (just like Black staff) relatively more ill-at-ease in their institutions than white students? Well, we would certainly have to take into account personal, familial and economic factors outside of university, and I do not want to belittle these at all. However, there is a tendency for university administration – and, it has to be said, many lecturers too – to point to these external factors thereby deferring any serious engagement with factors that are entirely to do with the experience that Black students have within university.

A recent NUS report brings to light some of these factors. Firstly, Black students can feel (not unlike Black academics) that differential treatment or assessment is received on account of racial stereotypes and implicit bias. Secondly, the curricula of non-SET subjects – i.e. social science, humanities and arts subjects – will rarely include in any substantive fashion Black histories, cultures, actors and thought systems. This can lead to alienation of and disinvestment in studies while, alternatively, white students (especially middle class ones) might be able to better utilise their cultural capital to invest themselves in their studies. As one Black African student put it in the NUS study: “there is a standard way of thinking that is hegemonically white”; one “mixed race” student commented upon “not being able to express or hear our own experience in learning”.

Cultural capital can be a great reproducer of inequality if institutions operate mono-culturally. In fact, 42% of BME students in the NUS study argued that the subject matter and pedagogical concerns of their modules did not take their diverse backgrounds into account. Moreover, 49% of African and Caribbean students and, interestingly, 80% of “mixed race” students wished to be involved in shaping the content of their course.

Another study found that students attending a Russell Group or pre-1992 institution were significantly more likely to argue that the material of their course was not diverse enough. And we know that it is precisely these more prestigious institutions that have the fewest Black students. The NUS study also found that perceptions of racism increase with the age of the student; and we also know that the Black student demographic is the oldest, in relative terms, of all ethnic groups including white.

Alienating and disinvesting experiences can make university feel like a foreign territory, as commented by one Black student in the NUS survey: “I feel alone. I wonder, should I be here? Do I have a right to be here, even though I’m not an international student?” From my own experience I can say that it was not until the 2nd year of my PhD studies that I felt comfortable enough to walk slowly through the corridors of my institution rather than rush through and out of them.  I distinctly remember one evening, during my undergraduate degree, when I left my senses behind because I so wanted to be at university, especially in the library, but all that I could feel there was that I was in enemy territory. It wasn’t any one individual’s fault. It was the environment itself.

A 2010 survey found that 22% of white students complained that they did not feel integrated into university social life compared to 33% of Black Caribbean and African students. Again, we might note the similarities of experiences between Black academic staff and students in this regard. And again, the university system is ill-prepared to address these problems: in an Equality Challenge Unit study in 2011, 45% of institutions surveyed admitted that there were barriers to personal development and progression in their institutions, but only 14% believed that there were any barriers specific to their BME constituencies.

One could say that all these factors are by and large matters of perception. I often wonder how many different ways people can justify-away racism. Why is it that people of colour so often perceive racism, and white people so often rationalise these perceptions away? Is it a madness that runs in the blood? Anyhow, let’s move away from “perception” and look instead at some of the concrete differentials in attainment amongst students.

For UK-domicile students, here is a portion of the most recent breakdown of awards:

Class                      Group               % of group attaining award

1st class:                white women          18.3%

1st class                 black women           5.7%

1st class                 white men               19.4%

1st class                 black men                6.9%

2:1 class                white women           54.7%

2:1 class                black women           38.3%

2:1 class                white men                50.1%

2:1 class                black men                35.1%

Amongst all ethnic and gender groups, Black women achieved the lowest percent of 1sts by a significant margin. This is despite Black women being relatively over-represented in the undergraduate academy. We should also remember that the Black student population possesses the highest percentage of women (59.4%) out of all UK-domicile ethnic groups including whites. Meanwhile, the percent of 1sts that Black men received was second lowest to Black women amongst all ethnicities and gender groups, and the percent of 2:1s that Black men received was the lowest amongst all ethnicities and gender groups.

Interestingly, the differences between Caribbean and African UK-domicile students was not so great. Caribbean students obtained marginally less 1sts than African students, yet Caribbean students obtained marginally more 2:1s than African counterparts. I would propose that this statistic might be picking up the effect of the perverse equalisation of racism that affects youth from migrant families who spend their formative years in Britain.

One might say, however, that we would need to look at the academic level that Black students start with in order to judge the “value-added” of their final attainments. For, if the academic starting point is lower than the norm, then perhaps Black students have achieved quite a lot in relative terms, if they are achieving, on average, 2:2s and some are hitting 2:1s and a few 1sts. While I do not want to dismiss this important point of contextualisation, I think that it can once more play into a deferral of engagement with institutional racism. The issue is not so much the point itself, but rather if the point is accompanied by an avoidance of the fundamental purposes of the university system in the UK.

The Robbins Report of 1963 laid out the purposes of higher education as a sector opened, for the first time, to the masses of the people. Amongst other items, the Robbins Report considered the university to be fit-for-purpose if it was acting as an institutional leveller of life chances. That is, contemporary university in the UK is supposed to denude, as much as is possible, previous socio-economic privileges by allowing for a genuine meritocratic playing field to emerge out of an extremely stratified society, a field upon which young people can launch their adult lives through their own abilities and efforts.

There is something seriously wrong in the very functioning of the university system, then, if it is reproducing privilege or even extending and deepening privilege as an outcome of undergraduate study.  The 2010 Browne Report, which announced the start of significant transformations to the UK university system currently being undertaken by the coalition government, does not focus on the issue of social justice at all. It does, however, embrace a further opening of university governance to market logics. Hence, I would argue that we are in a worse situation now in these regards than we were before 2010.

Furthermore, the re-production of privilege within the public university system articulates with the re-production of disparities of life chances post-university. After finishing their degree, 56.5% of UK-domicile white students find full time employment compared to 45.4% of Black students. Both these figures are up roughly 3% from 2010, which is good, but the disparity between them has remained almost exactly the same.

Moreover, 6% of white students find themselves unemployed compared to 14.6% of Black students – a significant disparity. These figures confirm other investigations that have revealed a disproportionate percentage of young Black people have been suffering unemployment due to austerity measures, and that there is a greater tendency among young Black people for the jobs that they do get to be part time or fixed contract. However, slightly more Black students, as a relative percentage, re-enter full time study than white students; perhaps this is in part due to the adverse job market that many experience.

It is important to also look at the different leaving experiences within the Black student population. 35% of UK-domicile Black Caribbean leavers land a full-time professional job, and this is the same as the percentage of Black African leavers. However, a greater percentage of Black Caribbean leavers land a part-time job (18.7%) as opposed to Black African leavers (13.2%). And a greater number of Black African students go back into full-time study (13.8%) in comparison to black Caribbean (10.1%). But notably, a significantly greater percentage of Black African leavers are unemployed (16.2%) compared to Black Caribbean (10.3%).  This last point might pertain to the visibility of “foreign-sounding” names on CV applications and the demonstrated prejudice that accompanies these names in the minds of employers.

These observations suggest that while both Black Caribbean and African students disproportionately suffer from a blocking or arresting of their careers as opposed to white counterparts, these experiences tend to manifest for Black students in different ways and perhaps for different reasons.





Black students are over-represented in general, but especially – and perversely – in less prestigious institutions. They are significantly under-represented when it comes to high attainment and career progression.  Black academics are under-represented in general, and they are acutely under-represented at higher levels of management and leadership.

To my mind, these basic findings reflect a simple story:  Black people in Britain have fought long and hard to get proper access to institutions that they are supposed to be entitled to. They have had to overcome and dismantle the barriers to progress through their own hard work. Nothing was given to Black people free in Britain. Everything was struggled for. They succeeded in opening up academia, no doubt as part of the wider race, class and feminist movements mounted against the hierarchies of British society that entrench white, rich male privilege and dominance.

However, while academia has opened its doors, it has been unwilling or unable to dismantle the norms, networks, and practices that reproduce white, rich male privilege in the first place. The diminishment  of “social justice” in many university strategic plans by the enlargement of “internationalization” agendas is testimony to the dissonance that exists between the principles of open access and the realities of institutional privilege. Disparities entrench themselves first and foremost at a domestic and local level. If you need to leap-frog over these levels into the global market in order to attain your diversity quotas then you are avoiding any serious engagement with this dissonance. You will not be fit-for-purpose in the eyes of the Robbins Report. But worringly, the newer Browne Report will judge you to be entirely fit-for-purpose.

I want to finish by telling an ordinary story of Black academics and students.

Like most of their colleagues and peers, Black academics and students want to be challenged, and to enjoy the challenge. They want to feel comfortable in university because it should be their place too. They want to be treated through a genuinely meritocratic calculus. They want to study what they think is of value and importance, and they want to address lacunae in knowledge that they believe to be significant. They would like to utilise their own diverse experiences, networks and knowledges as social and cultural capital. Most would want to use this capital to facilitate their own achievements; some might even want to use it to suture the wounds that they have collectively experienced in Babylon system; and all would expect their capital to enrich the general store of human knowledge. They don’t want people to experience cognitive dissonance when they meet a Black expert on – or enthusiast of – French philosophy or Russian literature.  But they also don’t want to be seen as any less worldly if they wish to academically concentrate on Black studies and, heavens forbid, matters of racism. Basically, they want to live a considered life, like any other intellectual.

Black academics and students are entirely ordinary. What makes them exceptional is only the racism that they encounter in the course of their ordinary pursuits.


15 thoughts on “Black Academia in Britain

  1. Robbie, this is an excellent post. You should send it off to a journal.

    Just on your point about supplementary schools and social capital, there is emerging research on this suggesting that middle-class black parents are today engaged in “concerted cultivation” of their kids – see and Whether this is particularly associated with those of continental African descent, I don’t know, but you provide good reasons to assume it is.

    Also on the dreaded “value added”, I take your point about deferral, but it is crucial to work this out in order to identify robustly the extent to which institutional racism is actually present. Once you’ve eliminated other causes, which can be quite precisely measured, the residuum must be discrimination, which actually strengthens your case. I think you breeze a little too easily past the socio-economic determinants of educational outcomes, despite the fact that social class remains the most dominant predictor of outcomes in the UK. (You start with much mention of “social capital” but this drops out when you discuss Robbins and rush to conclude that there is something seriously wrong with UK HE.) Of course, one would then be driven to ask why so many Black people suffer relatively deprivation, but that would point to discrimination in settings outside universities which may have a more profound impact on a Black student’s chances than anything a university might do. In this sense, taking a holistic view is not necessarily “deferral”, it is about identifying where the most serious problems lie and directing our scarce energies appropriately.


    • Hi Lee, thanks for those important and engaging comments.

      The supplementary school system has been running for decades now. Primarily – but not only – by people from an African-Caribbean background. When I’ve taught on them recently (just a couple of times), I would say that 75 to 80% of the children are from a Caribbean background. But that is my very limited experience, so it could well be that in other areas more youth from a continental background are coming in. i don’t know. It’s an important question.

      Yes, you are entirely right, this is very much about socio-economic deprivation. however, race is part of that and not only at an economic level. the deprivation also comes from, as i say, having your cultural capital rendered valueless when you enter institutions of white privilige. this is similar to the problems that say, a poor white student might have entering cambridge; yet it is massively compounded by race too. A number of studies show that even when you factor in socio-economic indicators, race is still causal in creating differences. this has been demonstrated now a number of times, it is no longer a question. But still, i would not see this variable, race, as separate to socio-economic, rather i would expand what deprivation means and how we understand it.

      I think you are also so right that we really need to get data on these different starting positions in order to really ascertain the degree of racism that is being inflicted on students. (it’s not a quesiton of if racism is being inflicted, but how much). Three things about that.
      1) the effect of institutional racism is not just about the results, although that’s very important; but it’s also about the alienating effect that goes along with it. so for example, you could be black and get a 1st, but the experience might be so alienating that you subsequently find it difficult to interview for big institutions, or to work in big institutions again. you might be succesful in uni but that success might at the same time confirm that this society is not really for or about you. And the problem with much of our Black communities is that most of us struggle to hold onto and cultivate our autonomous spaces which, like it or not, pretty much every other “ethnicity” has. I know stories along these kinds of lines. I.e. it’s about the character formation (or mal-formation) as much as the result. (and “training for citizenship” is something embraced by Robbins).
      2) I think that we would really want to be institution specific. ie look at one university and the differentials in starting and finishing positions, and even do it by department. That would then allow us as you say to get a real handle on it. and i am sure there will be suprising differences between institutions and disciplines. (philosophy, yikes!). anyway, the problem is that universities are NOTORIOUSLY sly about releasing stats on ethnicity and attainment, primarily because they look so bad. this is the single biggest handicap on getting a better handle on this. However, universities are fine with releasing their DIVERSITY stats… go figure.
      3) looking at the stats we have, they are SO out of line at the top end. something is going seriously wrong. I am entirely with you that a holistic approach is required. Part of that will be a 100% focused look on the institutional racism that universities structure themselves around with no blinkers on and no excuses. Part of that will be looking at how Black families and communities relate to universities. if they don’t or can’t, then things won’t improve because no student comes as an individual. the only ones who think they come as individuals are either deluded and/or so priviliged they don’t need to think about their extra-curricular support structures. Part of that will be, finally, an articulation of this problem with the struggles over the wider – and increasingly stratifying – hierarchies and exclusivities that make up British society and state.

      Thanks again mate for your awesome and insightful comments.:)


  2. This is a brilliant and insightful essay Robbie. It speaks to much of my experience as a student of African/Caribbean heritage in a UK institution. I wish I could send it to my former supervisors!

    A few points: There are supplementary schools and supplementary schools! There are those that arose from the disappointments faced by ‘first generation’ Caribbean parents with the experience of their children post Windrush and the ‘educationally subnormal’ classification that many of the first intake students received as a result of the difficulty faced adapting to the English spoken in the classrooms in which teachers were not sensitive enough/trained to effectively deal with this issue. These are the classical Saturday Schools, owned and run by members of the community, not all of whom may be trained teachers and are largely voluntary. African history and philosophy may be taught.There is a lot of value added in these institutions.

    Then there is a newer wave of supplementary schools which have catered mainly for the newer migrant families from Africa and which have focussed very keenly on ‘normative’ academic excellence and children may be ‘hot-housed’ and driven to excel in the three ‘R’s’. It is these Saturday and often after school academies which will have contributed much to stories of achievement reported in the Black Media and even on mainstream TV and contributed, I guess, to increased University attendance.

    Some of the achievements may also be fuelled by, as you point out socio-economic disparities between the two diasporas and the ability of the newer diaspora to afford exclusive private education for their children.
    Not all of these provisions are for the newer diaspora either and there is a newer type of supplementary provision which is sharply focussed upon ‘pure’ academic excellence, as if there were such a thing!

    What I ask myself is this, how is it that we can feed our social and cultural capital as Africans to bolster the repository we need to draw upon as we move through higher academia?
    What cultural values and ethics do we or can we bring into the mix when we speak of academic achievement? Is it all the same globally? Is there not something about the purpose of education -at any level- that speaks to the material condition the group of humans pursuing it find themselves in?

    Educational provisions for times of ‘austerity’, such as has been described, in any case, surely have to take into consideration as much diverse cultural capital as can be garnered to contribute to generating resilience in the face of massive challenge faced by all the populace.

    Surely the cultural capital of the African and Asian and other economically exploited group, has much to contribute to the search for sustainable and resilient solutions to current adversities? Why is academia being so myopic in the face of these things?

    Another area worth exploring is the nature of student support available for Black undergraduates and postgraduates. How culturally sensitive is it? Mine wasn’t at all. A lack of support for matters students face outside of their academic studies is likely to have a major impact upon their academic performance, I imagine (and know this from experience).

    Also, when we seek to raise these questions, when academics raise these questions, what of the awareness that we do come from different socio-economic backgrounds and so have differing sensitivities for the difficulties which may be experienced by other Black folk in academia and towards the kinds of outcomes that students may desire for themselves. Is this not also something also worth thinking about?

    Do we all want the same thing out of academia? Makes it a little more ‘layered’, but , hey!


    • Thanks Mama D! And thanks for clarifying the supplementary school issue. That is really important and interesting. So it seems, perhaps, to help more continental AFrican background youth enter into uni, but it doesn’t seem to help with differentiating them at the top end of attainment. I.e. these youth still seem to get affected by the same issues as their African Caribbean background counterparts. Someone tell their parents!!!

      And thanks for the layering!!! 🙂


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  5. Dear Robbie,

    This is such a cogent and detailed account of what an institutional wall exists. What can be done about the legacy of the 1980s inroads made, by black scholars in the UK’s universities and to shaping international intellectual life, which simply has not developed into a critical mass in later generations. The humanities in particular are cast in the worst light in terms of fewer than five (?) black professors and students not finding academia to be a viable career route. Professor Joan Anim-Addo and Dr Deirdre Osborne have fought to launch in 2015, the MA Black British Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Collective action has to be a means of redressing the lack of presence.

    Thank-you for your sagacity and clarity on this situation!


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