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Facing facts

As BLM demonstrations take place across the UK, academia must act

“I can’t breathe,” the words of George Floyd, and Eric Garner before him—both black men who died after brutal restraint by white police officers—were inscribed on many protest signs brandished at anti-racism demonstrations across the UK recently. Alongside them, placards in support of Black Lives Matter and banners denouncing racism as a pandemic worse than Covid-19. 

As academia, along with every other sector, is increasingly forced to confront uncomfortable truths about its treatment of black people, one of its immediate responses must be to ensure that Covid-19 does not undo the limited progress made towards addressing racism in its ranks.

Progress on black and minority ethnic inclusion in the university sector has been shamefully, painfully slow. While institutions and funding bodies have put forward numerous strategies to address systemic failings that have perpetuated under-representation of black people and other minority groups, the cold facts tell a different story. 

Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, for example, just 1.2 per cent of funded PhD studentships awarded by research councils went to black students, yet black people make up 3 per cent of the UK population. For as long as trends like this persist, thousands of individuals are missing opportunities that should be available to them, and society is missing out on perspectives that could help solve huge challenges. Which researchers, for example, would be best-placed to examine why BAME people have been hit harder by Covid-19?

As the sector battles the coronavirus fallout, there is heightened risk that the academic careers of those from BAME communities will stop before they even start. Programmes to widen access among disadvantaged groups must not be allowed to drift amid financial pressures facing universities. 

A rise in online teaching is one effect of the pandemic that risks disadvantaging those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Many efforts to promote inclusion revolve around face-to-face group meetings—these need urgent rethinking for an online world to ensure students get the support they need, and this applies academically as much as pastorally. The attainment gap between black and white students achieving a 2.1 or first class degree is around 20 percentage points, arguably fuelled by lecturers having lower expectations of black students. These students cannot afford the detachment that could come from online learning if institutions do not go out of their way to prevent it. All institutions should sign up to the Race Equality Charter—more than half have not. Institutions ought to review their committees and question if they really reflect the kind of academic community they wish to be a part of. If not, change is well overdue.

Every institution urgently needs to engage with black academics over how to ensure environments where they feel valued rather than marginalised or discriminated against. For our part, we are undertaking to increase representation of black academics within our pages and will be working with the research community to do this over the coming weeks and months.

Ensuring black people have a voice is one part of the battle. The harder, more crucial part is to genuinely listen. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight