Universities, this is an opportunity for you

This is a ‘thought piece of writing

Representation

I think representation is a key and important issue that needs addressing quickly – how can I, as a Black student, feel as though academia is for me when Black professors are so few and far between within University spaces. Every academic space I walk into I am a minority. I think critically reflecting on how many Black professors exist in the professoriate is so important. This is not a quick fix task. Systems needs to be destabalised. The first step is to take care of the Black academics we DO have. We need to take a hard long look at why within academia so many black members of staff remain on temporary and fractional contracts even with many years of service? Are there good mentoring and support programmes in place to support Black academics progress? Do universities emphasise the importance of the research conducted by Black academics. Do you encourage your Black PhD students to take up opportunities where they can expand and grow? Is there adeqaute support in place for Black PhD students?

It’s not enough to take tokenistic approaches either – it must be real change. Inviting one Black staff member or student to sit at the table, shouldn’t be seen as job done. We may have to remove the table all together.

Recruitment

This is an important area. Universities need to look at their recruitment practices. What are their interview panels like when recruiting Black staff members or Black PhD students? Is there adequate information on their websites about job roles or PhD proposals? Have they reached out to specific organisations that specialise in recruiting Black people? BAME Recruitment and Rare recruitment are two organisations that partnerships can be formed with.

Universities should also invite (and put pressure on) Doctoral Training Partnerships to take action too. They should be more transparent about their Equality Diversity and Inclusion stats for recruitment and consider supporting students throughout the recruitment process more. This might mean having pre-application workshops. We need to encourage other centers and institutions to offer proper support and help PRE-APPLICATION. So Black students have the best possible chance at succeeding in the interview. Some Black students are the first to do a PhD in their family – they might not have friends and family who can look over personal statements and research proposals. Have example statements and proposals on websites, which outline the differences between a good and bad application.

Another idea is asking different types of questions at interview? Or challenging DTPs to take other types of qualifications and experience into account when accepting students for PhD study. It is known that Black students are more likely to come into academia with different experiences and qualifications as mentioned by Nick Hillman director of Higher Education Policy Institute

Training 

I think a specific training on supervising and supporting PGR students from a wide range of backgrounds with an intersectional approach is what is needed to. From working alongside me, my supervisors are aware that there are sometimes other issues that are part of the mix (learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia; mental health; other health, family networks and cultural expectations). It interesting because out of the few black PGRS I know ALL of us have had at least three of these issues impact us during the pandemic – coincidence? I think not! We have  coached and supported each other. But, what about the other students who quit?

Amplifying black voices

We need to work on amplifying Black staff and student voices more – reach out to them and ask them to speak at events, write blogs, and more importantly ensure the adequate time is put aside to support them do a good job. Ensure that Black faces are on our websites, social media etc – Before going to uni, Black students look at these things and ask? Will I feel comfortable at this uni? Universities should engage with local community groups, invite them to take part in university events and offer mutual benefits. This coincides with universities being civic/public institutions, but also can serve another purpose. Smaller Black owned organisations and charities  may support Black students feel comfortable within the university space.

Language

We need to think about how we are speaking to and about Black students and staff and be upfront about this. Creating space for black people is about being mindful of the language used. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have been called ‘aggressive’ or ‘intimidating’ in academia because I have spoken out about something. These all reflect biases and stereotypes that have horrible effect on black students. Black students are not the problem. Evidence from the UUK Report on the ‘BAME’ attainment gap showed that Black students enter university with the same grades as white counterparts, but are still not achieving. This. Is. A. Systemic. Problem.

Funding

Statistics show that black students are more likely to suffer financial hardship, can specific funds be put aside to support Black students throughout their studies? – this article by Dr Gurnam Singh points this out. Or at the very least, can Universities partner with organisations that offer additional grants and funding?

Any events, projects that Black students and staff are invited to take part of should be compensated. More often than not Black people and people of Colour offer knowledge capital and input because we want to improve the lives of others – however, this is work and shows that we are making a valuable contribution, therefore should be paid. Universities should announce to managers and heads of schools that these events are prioritised in workload plans, and hours etc for staff taking part in these events. Additionally, it should be placed on people’s official records as a contribution to the university – so it can be used in appraisals and for promotions

Management

The university management has to be willing to admit where they have NOT acted, NOT been supportive, made mistakes. White members of staff need to attend the event willing and open to confronting their privilege and fragility – for me, this is VERY important if not one of the most important things. What I mean by this is – there should be no members of staff defending the university if someone is sharing a negative incident based on their lived experience. As I stated in my previous post, it should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and reflection of current practices that do not work.

Decolonising research

The whole system needs to be addressed. Even the ways in which we SEARCH for literature, it is rare we include authors from Black and Asian countries to frame our research unless we have an explicit ‘post-colonial’ lens – I have been questioning this in my research journal when we so easily draw from scholars from Global North countries like FRANCE, GERMANY, USA, CANADA (Biggs, 2020, forthcoming). In some cases, Black and Asian scholars have more insightful points to make because they are in countries that are past colonies and UK imperialism still impacts the country’s very fabric today. Additionally, some of these academics were educated in the UK!!  (this will be expanded in another post).

We have to critically look at what methods, methodologies, ontologies and epistemologies we teach and reinforce within our research methods lectures too! 

We need to encourage academics to add a ‘lens of privilege’  to ALL of their research, and reflect on where the academic / research is exercising privilege, question who is left out of this research and why? Who does this research impact and affect and why? Have I been explicit about who I am as a researcher? Too many times discussions on race are left to the Black and minority ethnic scholars and authors to reflect on, but if real change has to come white academics need to reflect on this too. Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility and Steve Garner’s book Whiteness are good starts here. As Angela Davis said it is not enough to be ‘non-racist we must be anti-racist’, I believe this means beginning to uncover the deep rooted assumptions about many of the current academic practices that exist in academia today that intentionally and unintentionally exclude Black people, people of colour, and others who experience systemic disadvantage.

This has been on my mind for a while, the current protests have just brought this to the surface for me and I am committed to advocating real change within Universities. It brought to light that just being myself, a young black woman, who is doing a PhD is a POLITICAL ACT and by default becomes a different way of protesting the dominant oppressive system.

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