Institutional racism, also known as systemic racism, can be defined as “discrimination that is embedded in the laws, and regulations of a society or an organisation”. Institutional racism can manifest itself in a wide range of areas, the criminal justice system, housing, healthcare, employment and in this case, education.
The topic of institutional racism within academia has recently experienced a resurgence, particularly as a consequence of the reawakened Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020. This resurgence has allowed students to be made more aware of the struggles that BAME, particularly black students face within education.
A recent study found that 10.3% of black students quit university early in England, compared with 6.9% for the student population as a whole. Research has also found that 2.4% of white students will start a PhD within five years of graduation, compared to 1.3% of their BAME peers (note that the statistic will be lower for black students specifically). In fact, a report by the education consultancy, Leading Routes, found that between 2016 and 2019, out of nearly 20,000 PhDs awarded by research funders, only 245 were awarded to black or black mixed students.
This tells us that not only are black students more likely to drop out than any other ethnic group but the likelihood of them even beginning a PhD is extremely low. What is the cause of this? Do black students have no interest in education or is there another underlying factor?
Students from all over the country have cited two main reasons for this; consistent bullying and the inability to feel represented within a predominantly white field. One young black student has stated that she was “never taught by a black lecturer at university so it didn’t occur to me that I could do that”. This tells us that black students feel like they do not have a place within an academic space that is reserved for the privileged few. Black students have also stated that gaining funding for their PhD has also proven to be difficult due to its “prescriptive” nature. Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University stated that “like the curriculum those (PhD) topics are Eurocentric, so the chances of minority students finding a topic they actually want to do is pretty small”. Again, we see another way in which black students are alienated from academia. Without funding, how can these students even dream of pursuing a PhD?
To combat this, the UKRI has funded 13 projects with the aim to encourage BAME students to study after their university degrees. These projects include the development of fairer admission criteria for Oxford and Cambridge Universities,, a project to lay the foundations for increasing the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic female professors and a scheme across the West Midlands to improve university cultures. Overall, these projects aim to boost the number of ethnic minority students at postgraduate level by encouraging them to do research and providing them with support through mentoring, training, and advice.
These initiatives are all well and good, but how do they tackle the bullying and harassment that black students experience and suffer within academia? Founder of Leading Routes, Paulette Williams told the BBC that there is no point attracting more ethnic minority students into postgraduate research without also tackling the racism that she says drives so many talented people away. A statement from the head of UK’s research funding body, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser also verifies that bullying and harassment is a major factor in less black students undertaking PhDs or dropping out. She states that “we have a lot of bullying and harassment in research…they are underrepresented and so they are obvious targets”. She also stated that the research environment can become toxic for minority groups and that “a shift in culture of the research system” is required to change this. Prof Jason Arday, a black academic at Durham has also stated that “If someone asked me what the blueprint to become an academic, I’d have to say that if you were black or Asian it is ‘how much can you suffer?’”.
How can we expect black students to survive in an environment that was not made for them, but actively ostracises them through bullying and microaggressions? It is not enough to provide funding and mentoring for black students, but instead white academics currently in their roles need to actively tackle their own prejudices. It is not the action of the students themselves that needs to be changed, but the system itself. As Prof Leyser stated, a shift in academic culture is required. A shift that prioritises the mental health of all of its students regardless of race, a shift that allows all students to feel like they belong in any field that they choose. If we want to see more black PhD students any time soon, this shift must begin now.