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Making a difference: Canagarajah on racism and inequality

Image: University of Leicester

University of Leicester vice-chancellor tells us about higher education’s problem with racial equality

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, you will see how many black people fall in the most senior group (“managers, directors and senior officials”), the number is zero. There are no senior black academic staff recorded in the official data on UK higher education institutions. Let that sink in.

As Research Professional News‘s HE service reported when the statistics were published in January, there is some small print. HESA rounds its numbers to the nearest five—so in reality, there could have been as many as two in 2018/19. 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).

This is a problem, and 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?

Yesterday, 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. We cover the story in detail on our HE 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?

We spoke to Nishan Canagarajah, one of the very very few BAME people at the top of UK academia, 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.”

This interview was originally published on 10 June in our daily 8am Playbook email.