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Racism: The glass ceiling that needs to be broken

Prasun Sonwalkar
Filed on July 22, 2021
Alamy Stock photo

Despite the overall optimism about inclusiveness in the academic sector, racism continues to raise its ugly head from time to time


There is a distinct part and counterpart to the story of academic staff from the Indian subcontinent at UK universities. The vast majority of them are satisfied with their careers — but scratch the surface and the reality of racism emerges. Most prefer to ignore it and get on with their work. There is also the fact that women, those from the Indian subcontinent and other staff categorised as BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) do not figure much in the higher ranks, such as professors and vice-chancellors. Several studies have highlighted the anomaly, but the gap between majority white academic staff and others has remained.

Universities UK, the umbrella organisation representing 140 universities and higher education institutions, says in a recent report that over half of staff who had experienced racial harassment described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race, and nearly a third had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes. Its research says that both staff and students reported regular experience of micro-aggressions (subtle, less ‘overt’ forms of racism), adding that the impact of racial harassment was severe, affecting mental health, educational outcomes and career progression. Negative mental health consequences such as depression and anxiety were widely reported, with 8 per cent of students who had experienced racial harassment reporting that they had felt suicidal; similar impact was found among staff. Around one in 20 students said they left their course, and three in 20 members of staff left their job as a result of racial harassment.

David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of the advisory group that formulated UUK’s recommendations to clean up the sector’s act on the issue of racism, says: “It is my firm belief that UK universities perpetuate institutional racism. This is uncomfortable to acknowledge but all university leaders should do so as a first step towards meaningful change. Too often, black, Asian and minority ethnic students and staff have been failed. While they may have heard positive words, they have seen little action. That needs to change now.”

Oft-repeated commitments to celebrate diversity on campuses go up to a point. A widespread belief among subcontinental and other non-white staff is that they need to work more and perform better than their UK colleagues to justify their presence and maintain their status. There have been instances where achievements and strengths of non-white staff are ignored in promotion rounds, while lesser details of home/white colleagues are recognised and rewarded.

Latest figures show that only 155 out of more than 23,000 university professors in the UK are non-white. The percentage remains below 1 per cent, the same as for the past five years, and is an increase of only 50 posts despite the number of professorships rising by more than 3,000 in that time. UUK says the evidence is clear that black and minority ethnic staff continue to be under-represented at senior academic levels, calling for more steps to address the inequality, which mirrors inequalities evident in wider British society.

According to Jo Grady of the University and College Union, “The pace of change is glacial. Universities must do more to ensure a more representative mix of staff at a senior level and stop this terrible waste of talent.” Guyana-origin Valerie Amos, who became the first non-white woman to head a university when she was appointed director of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2015, has warned of “deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes which need to be overcome” in the recruitment of senior staff in higher education.

The challenge is not confined to the UK, but is faced by academics from the subcontinent based at European universities too. Tabish Khair, who teaches at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, says the challenge is difficult to quantify, but adds: “My achievements often counted for less, and still count for less, than equivalent or even lesser achievements by a white academic would. This is much more so in places like Denmark and Sweden and France than in UK or USA, perhaps because non-English-speaking countries tend to associate English Studies with whiteness.”





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