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Time for change

Nishan Canagarajah, one of the UK’s few black, Asian or minority ethnic vice-chancellors, talks diversity

Universities have an awful record when it comes to promoting black, Asian and minority ethnic people to positions of power.

If you look at the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency data for academic staff as categorised by ethnicity, then look at how many black people fall in the most senior group (“managers, directors and senior officials”), the number you will see is zero. There are no senior black academic staff recorded in the official data on UK higher education institutions. Let that sink in.

As we reported when the statistics were published in January, there is some small print. For example, HESA rounds its numbers to the nearest five—so in reality, there could be as many as two. Out of 535 at that level.

To complete the figures, 89 per cent of the most senior academic staff were white (475); 3 per cent were Asian (15); 1 per cent identified as mixed ethnicity (5); and the rest were “other” (5) or “not known” (35).

Playbook readers know this is a problem and that it has been a problem for centuries. Why are our universities so singularly incapable of welcoming black, Asian and ethnic minority students to their campuses, retaining them in academia, promoting them to senior positions and facilitating their rise to the top?

Last night, thousands of people gathered in Oxford to demand the removal of the statue of Victorian-era imperialist Cecil Rhodes, which stands outside Oriel College. Following the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, the long-running campaign to remove the monument to Rhodes has once again rightly been ignited. Fiona McIntyre covers the story on our site

There has arguably never been a more pertinent moment to ask what has gone wrong in UK academia when it comes to BAME representation. Who, though, to ask?

One of the very very few BAME people at the top of UK academia is Nishan Canagarajah, who has been president and vice-chancellor of the University of Leicester since November.

An internationally recognised engineering researcher, Canagarajah was born and educated in Sri Lanka, before winning a scholarship that brought him to the UK to study at the University of Cambridge. Before joining Leicester, he spent 25 years at the University of Bristol, where he became pro vice-chancellor for research and enterprise and the university’s lead for equality, diversity and inclusion. He still lives in Bristol, after the process of moving to Leicester was interrupted by the coronavirus.

What, then, did Canagarajah think as the Colston statue disappeared into the very Bristol water where the slave ships with which Colston was so closely associated used to dock?

“I think it’s a difficult one, and it was quite hard to watch the way it came down,” he says. “Some people would regard that as a criminal act, and…it was not ideal, the way it was done. But I think the reality is, it should have come down some time ago.

“There have been lots of protestations and lobbying [to remove the statue] by various groups and they didn’t lead anywhere. So I guess, sometimes the frustration boils over, they try all the democratic processes which don’t get the outcome, and the minority groups have nothing left.”

He adds that it may have proven very difficult for protesters in Bristol to make their voices heard given the relatively small proportion of the city’s population that are from ethnic minority backgrounds—a figure he puts at about 12 per cent.

Leicester, on the other hand, is famously one of the most multicultural cities in the UK. According to the last census, Leicester—with a white population of 51 per cent—is the eighth most diverse region in England and Wales, and this local characteristic is something that Canagarajah wants to see reflected in how the university presents itself.

“The vision for Leicester is that we will be a university for inclusion, because it resonates with a city with such a high percentage of ethnic minorities,” he says—adding that from a research perspective, Leicester’s diversity also offers the university “a lot of interesting opportunities”.

“In medical sciences, if you’re doing trials or if you’re doing cohort studies, diverse populations are a real asset. But if you take in other disciplines [that require] deep data, again, it gives us a rich data set to play with by working in partnership with the city,” he says. “I feel the diversity is our strength.”

Canagarajah has already started to instil his vision at Leicester. He has launched a BAME postgraduate scholarship scheme that deliberately focuses on the social sciences—an area where there is underrepresentation of ethnic minority postgrads and academic staff.

“I think if you want to really address the issues and face the facts in terms of inclusion [in higher education], we need to look at staff representation, student representation and the curriculum, and really take a holistic view. When staff and students feel they belong in the institution, they can achieve their full potential.

“For me, moving to Leicester is really interesting, because I’ve been able to articulate a vision that seems to galvanise everybody, both in the university and the city. And we are a research-intensive university, so I am thinking how we embody that vision in our research programme, how we reflect that in our educational programmes, and also in the community engagement that we are doing.”

Changing perceptions

While diversity is undoubtedly at the heart of Canagarajah’s plans for Leicester, he acknowledges that UK higher education as a whole has a lot of work to do to improve its frankly abysmal performance on BAME representation.

“As you go up into the leadership roles like heads of school, then pro vice-chancellor and then ultimately vice-chancellor, the pipeline is getting smaller and smaller, and harder and harder [for minorities],” he says—adding that, as a BAME vice-chancellor, he feels an “important responsibility to raise these issues”.

So why does he feel that so few black, Asian and minority ethnic students fail to climb the academic career ladder, and what can be done about it?

“One reason is that they don’t feel like it is an environment that’s going to be supportive for them or will have the role models they can identify with,” Canagarajah says. “And another reason is…normally you invest time in education because you think it’s going to help your future career prospects, but they somehow don’t feel that’s going to be beneficial.”

A third area that concerns the Leicester vice-chancellor is the way in which doctoral candidates are selected.

“With undergraduates we have a very transparent selection process, whereas if you look at PhDs…you apply to work with a world-renowned professor in that subject and it’s very much up to them to choose who they want to recruit as their PhD students.”

Canagarajah worries about this “inherent bias in the selection process at PhD level”, and the knock-on effects that it has on the academic career pipeline.

“As a result of this, we are not producing enough [minority] postgraduates [who will then go on to] an academic job. Then, when that doesn’t happen, it just makes it harder when we recruit undergraduates because they’re not seeing the role models to inspire them to think: ‘Oh, it’s worth me going to the university because there are people like me in that environment.’”

For his part, Canagarajah intends to use his position at Leicester as a platform to try to tackle some of these perceptions, and he says it would be a “dereliction of my duty” if he did not speak out.

“I come from a poor, little-income family from Sri Lanka and had never been abroad, never spoken English,” he says. “I was given a scholarship to come to Cambridge to do my undergraduate, and that’s how I ended up in this country. Then I got another scholarship to Cambridge to do my PhD, and then I got a call from Bristol to hire me and I was there for 25 years.

“I have had fantastic colleagues, and I have benefited enormously from the support I got. But I’m fully conscious there are a lot of people without that opportunity who could achieve a lot more in life.”

Great expectations

The Office for Students has today instructed universities to give “clear and timely” information about how the delivery of their courses will change in the coming academic year following the Covid-19 outbreak—including details about the extent to which tuition will be delivered online.

In guidance published today, England’s regulator says that current students should be told how their courses and teaching might need to be adjusted to reflect “different scenarios and changes to public health advice”, while prospective students should be given “enough information to be able to make an informed decision about starting that course, choosing a different course or deferring”.

“Existing students also need clear information about any adjustments to their courses and assessment that may take place in the next academic year,” the guidance states.

Information that should be made clear includes whether the cost of a course will be reduced next year as a result of disruption, and if fees “will increase to a ‘normal’ level” in subsequent years. This suggests that the OfS anticipates fees will be affected by the disruption.

“These are exceptionally challenging times for both students and universities, but students must be told clearly how their courses will be taught next year,” said Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS.

“While many universities and colleges have responded to the crisis with innovation and ingenuity, all current students have had their studies disrupted. Any adjustments that continue into next year must be clearly communicated, and students must have access to a transparent and flexible complaints process should they feel that suitable changes have not been made.”

And finally…

An academic at the University of Lincoln has reproduced one of the institution’s campuses as a video game, reimagining it as a fictional pirate island.

The game features familiar Lincoln buildings and landmarks but also incorporates “pirate ships and giant parrots…duelling university professors and dancing students”.

Chris Headleand, director of teaching and learning in the school of computer science, designed the game. He said that many prospective students would “have hoped to visit the campus before coming here for their studies, but with the current government advice they are unable to do that”.

“Through this game they can at least take a tour, get a sense of where everything is and meet some of the people they’ll be learning from and alongside,” he added.

Presumably the students will be able to shun the pirate video game and visit the campus in person once the government deems the “Aaaaarggghhh!” rate to be sufficiently low.

On Research Professional News today

Fiona McIntyre reports that the University of Oxford has refused to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes despite renewed calls for it to be taken down, and she covers the latest guidance from the Office for Students.

Chris Parr tells us that the University and College Union is to ballot its members on whether it should accept the deal on pay and conditions proposed by employers, and he covers claims by an MP that British students are being crowded out of Oxbridge by foreign students.

Sophie Inge brings us news that the National Institute for Health Research has launched a call for longer-term research into the Covid-19 pandemic, and an international group of chemistry organisations has issued a joint statement against discrimination and inequality in the chemical sciences.

Sophie adds that the Science and Technology Facilities Council has appointed an executive director of business and innovation, and MPs have heard that ensuring that researchers are provided with real-time data on a range of issues to track Covid-19 is “crucial” to tackling the pandemic.

The Treasury has insisted that a potential university bailout package is “still on our to-do list” but that there is “no new money at this stage”, writes Sophie.

Lin Zhang and Gunnar Sivertsen ask whether reforms can balance global excellence with local impact.

Germany’s federal government has proposed the creation of a €130 billion (£115.7bn) economic stimulus package to counteract the impact of Covid-19, with nearly half of this funding going to education and science, writes Hristio Boytchev.

Ben Upton reports that young and innovative European companies are poorly served by the continent’s support for innovation and need more of a voice in policy debates, and the European Chemicals Agency has found “relatively few changes” in the use of animal alternatives for chemicals testing.

Ben also tells us that a European Union body has said digital regulations must curtail the dependency on a small number of non-EU technology companies, a phenomenon that stifles indigenous innovation.

In the news

The BBC reports that applications to further education colleges are down by 40 per cent in Northern Ireland, and it has a video about drama school racism.

ITV News says that three-quarters of British universities have fallen in a world ranking, and Swansea University is investigating “abhorrently racist comments” made by students.

In The Guardian, UK universities suffer their worst-ever rankings in an international league table, and protesters rally in Oxford for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue. An opinion piece says that if universities struggle financially, black, Asian and minority ethnic academics will lose their jobs first.

In The Telegraph, the Office for Students tells universities to be honest with students about how the coronavirus will affect classes.

The Independent reports on renewed hope that the Cecil Rhodes statue will fall and is providing live updates.

i News says that the public wants universities to prioritise nurses and doctors over science and arts students.

In The Times, UK universities have been marked down in a global ranking and the economic damage of Covid-19 could set back a generation.

The Evening Standard says that the University of Liverpool is to rename halls of residence after uproar over William Gladstone slavery links.

The Huffington Post covers the Cecil Rhodes protests.

The day ahead

From 9am, Universities UK is holding a webinar on Covid-19 and the safety and wellbeing of students and staff.

At 9.30am, the House of Commons education committee is exploring the impact of the coronavirus on education.

Also at 9.30am, the Commons home affairs committee is looking at the Home Office’s preparedness for Covid-19.

The University of Glasgow is holding an online symposium from 9.30am as part of its annual teaching and learning conference.

SOAS, University of London, has an online conference on diversity and inclusion in higher education at 9.30am.

The Society for Research into Higher Education has two webinars on demystifying the doctoral viva, at 10.30am and 2pm.

The Commons science and technology committee is assessing the UK’s science, research and technology capability and influence in global disease outbreaks from 2pm.

The Welsh government has announced a delay to the The Draft Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill.

Advance HE is holding its 2020 leadership summit.

University College London’s Institute of Education has cancelled an event on digital wayfaring in higher education because of the coronavirus.

UCAS has postponed its Inspiring Choices and Progression to Higher Education 2020 event, originally due to take place today in Leeds.

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Harriet Swain and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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