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Osei Boateng

A new petition campaign, now underway, wants British universities to stop discriminating against black academics (also known as African and Caribbean scholars) achieving equal job opportunities, reports .


As the USA inaugurates the second term of its first black president, Barack Obama, on Monday 21 January 2013, Britain, “the mother country”, will be saddled with a petition campaign asking its elite universities to stop racially excluding black academics from equal job opportunities. 

The contrast could not be starker. A country built by black slaves, that practised severe racial segregation right into the 1960s, now has a black president who has just won re-election. That country, the United States of America, spun off the “mother country” Great Britain of which for centuries America was a colony.

In fact, racial segregation had always been part of British colonies worldwide – what about Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, etc? In effect, racially-segregated America was only doing what the family does or did, or better still what the family learnt from the mother country. And even now in the Internet age of Facebook, Twitter and Flicker, black academics in the “mother country” still face racial exclusion from top jobs in universities – the problem seems to be far worse in the elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. One statistic in 2005 showed that the University of Oxford, Britain’s “holy of holies”, had 97.5% of its staff recorded as white.

In April 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron raised a lot of eyebrows when he described Oxford’s low intake of black students as “disgraceful”. Speaking at an event in North Yorkshire, the prime minister said: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year. I think that is disgraceful. We have got to do better than that.” 

The prime ministerial criticism stung a shamed Oxford to increase its black intake in the 2011-12 academic year to 32 students. That gave a spokeswoman of the university the special joy to tell The Guardian: “The university will work hard to continue improving these numbers.” 

That is for student intake. When it comes to black academic staff – lecturers and senior lectures such as professors – the problem at British universities is so dire that a petition-signing campaign is currently underway in the UK, seeking 10,000 signatures, to appeal to the good senses of The Russell Group of universities – comprising elite universities in Britain such as Oxford and Cambridge and other prestigious institutions – to stop racially discriminating against black academics.

The campaign was launched in mid-November by a group of academics most of whom work in or have links to Oxford or Cambridge. 

Charlotte Goldenberg, a campaign volunteer and Oxbridge alumnus, said the petition was “not the usual Oxbridge-bashing” because “it was started by a group of current scholars, alumni, and academics from all racial backgrounds. [And] these people love and cherish Oxford and Cambridge and want to see them change in the right direction on equal job opportunities for black and minority ethnic academics.”

The petition has already received the support of the black MP and former universities minister, David Lammy, who says the campaign covers “an area of public life that needs scrutiny”.

Looking across the Atlantic, Lammy pointed to the prominence of black academics in US universities such as the former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and said: “There are real questions about why we are not seeing that mirrored here, particularly in our Russell Group [of universities], and why so many black academics tell a tale of woe and discrimination in relation to their progress.” 

A pass over 

Lammy’s concern echoes the views of people who say, unlike the USA, it will take Britain at best another one thousand years to elect a black prime minister, and at worst not at all. In fact, the petition campaign comes right on the heels of the Church of England bypassing a black archbishop, the number two in the Church’s hierarchy, the Ugandan-born Archbishop Dr John Sentamu, and choosing his subordinate (the fourth in the hierarchy), Archbishop Justin Welby, as the new head of the Church.

Ever since the outgoing head of the Church, Dr Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury), announced last year that he would step down from his position this year, many people, including journalists and bookmakers, tipped Dr John Sentamu as the man to step into Dr Williams’ shoes, which would have made him the first ever black man to head the Anglican Church. 

In the end, however, when push came to shove, the English establishment resorted to type and jumped over Dr Sentamu for someone who had been an archbishop for less than a year, and who joined the Anglican clergy only 20 years ago, after years of being an oilman. To see why the Ugandan was passed over, one only need to read between the lines a special feature published by The Times on 9 November on Justin Welby’s ascension to the Anglican throne. The coverage was subtly laced with how “true blue” Welby’s antecedents were, something the black man from Uganda can never match.

“Bishop Welby has a colourful family tree,” Lucy Bannerman, who wrote The Times piece, cared to let her readers know. “His mother, Jane Portal, was private secretary to Winston Churchill. Her half uncle was Charles Portal, the Chief of Air Staff and the boss of ‘Bomber Harris’ who devised the bombing of German cities, including Dresden, in the Second World War.

“His father introduced John F. Kennedy to his first mistress. Gavin Welby was sent on a boat from London to New York by his mother, with £5 in his pocket. He became a bootlegger during the Prohibition, working for a company that survived by selling Communion wine. With wealth came status, and he shot up the social ladder, eventually partying with the Kennedys.”

Welby’s parent, The Times cared to point out, “divorced when he was 2, and his mother remarried a Labour peer, Lord Williams of Elvel, a former deputy leader of the opposition in the Lords and biographer of Harold Macmillan and Marshal Petain. Other colourful relatives include Rab Butler, the former Conservative deputy prime minister”.

Surely Dr John Sentamu, a man from a country whose staple food is bananas, will find it difficult to match Welby’s “colourful relatives” who might have gorged themselves on cheese, pie and pudding. And the recitation of their antecedents by The Times was meant to show how Welby was truly one of England’s. 

A national problem

Interestingly, just as the dust of the passing over of Dr Sentamu was settling down, in came the universities’ petition campaign, alleging that discrimination against black lecturers in Britain has long and deep roots. 

Way back in June 1999, a report commissioned by the Policy Studies Institute highlighted the shameful practice of British academia discriminating against black lecturers. The report found that “ethnic minority lecturers are less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts and many may have faced harassment”.

At the time, a shocked Sir Herman Ouseley, the then chief executive of the Commission for Racial Equality, said the report’s findings “make uncomfortable reading”, adding that: “Higher education leaders must now demonstrate that unfairness and discrimination do not distort their sector.” The report was based on a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Bristol in the south of England. They looked at the experiences of 6% of academic staff who were from ethnic minority backgrounds, and found that after nine years of service, white lecturers were twice as likely as non-white lecturers to get promotion to the level of professor. 

A good 25% of black lecturers said they had been discriminated against in job applications, and 20% said they had experienced racial harassment, either from staff or students. Responding to the report at the time, Diana Warwick, the then chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, said the findings proved that “higher education has a long way to go in advancing equal opportunities – but the first steps have already been taken”. 

She pointed to a number of anti-racist measures, including guidelines issued by her commission to prevent harassment, and the establishment of a “task group” on race and equality, as part of the fight back against academic discrimination.

“This is all part of our recognition that there is room for improvement. We deplore any case of discrimination or unfair stereotyping,” she added.

That was in 1999. Five years later, in October 2004, The Times reported that “up to 50% of black male social scientists may have left the UK for the US” because of discrimination in academia.

Paul Gilroy, who used to be at London University’s Goldsmiths College as professor of sociology and cultural studies, but is now one of those who had voted with their feet (he had become chair of Yale University’s African-American studies department in the USA), told The Times: “The idea of being a black intellectual seems a bizarre oxymoron in England.” 

His view was supported by Ben Carrington, another one of those who had left the UK, for the University of Texas, USA: “It’s not that [UK universities] are consciously racist,” Carrington said, “but the largely white male vice chancellors don’t see the recruitment of black academics in itself as necessary.”

Fast forward one year to October 2005. A report by the Association of University Teachers (AUT) showed that black and ethnic minority lecturers still faced discrimination when it came to performance-related pay.

“White lecturers are 60% more likely to be awarded discretionary pay than their black and ethnic minority colleagues,” the report said. “Among the staff awarded extra salary when they reach the top of their pay scale, 21% of white lecturers on the main lecturer pay grade have been awarded discretionary points compared to just 13% of their ethnic minority colleagues,” the report added. 

The findings so affected Sally Hunt, the AUT’s general secretary, to say: “Once again, we find evidence of discrimination in higher education. It is deeply disturbing that white lecturers are 60% more likely to be awarded discretionary points than their black colleagues. Employers have known about this for a long time. They must accept responsibility for such failures and take some meaningful action to end pay discrimination in higher education. 

“Sadly, I expect all we will hear will be excuses, explanations, and examples of spreading good practice. That is simply not good enough. It does not take much to introduce fair, transparent, and equality-proofed procedures for awarding discretionary points. All it takes is a willingness on the part of the university employers to move forward.” 

Same old, same old

But have the university employers moved forward? In October 2005, Jocelyn Prudence, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, conceded that the AUT findings raised a valid issue, but she dampened it down by saying the report was “based on two-year-old data” – meaning there had been an improvement in the preceding two years.

Yet, on 27 May 2011, a Guardian story quoted “leading black academics” as calling for “an urgent culture change at UK universities as figures show there are just 50 black British professors out of more than 14,000, and the number has barely changed in eight years.” The figures came from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Black academics therefore demanded “urgent action” because they “have to work twice as hard as their white peers and are passed over for promotion”. This was in 2011. The Guardian’s story was peppered with statistics that could have dampened the spirits of the strongest black person (which in today’s Britain is defined as African and Black Caribbean).

“The HESA figures show black British professors make up just 0.4% of all British professors – 50 out of 14,385,” The Guardian reported. “This is despite the fact that 2.8% of the population of England and Wales is Black African or Black Caribbean, according to the Office of National Statistics.

“Only 10 of the 50 black British professors are women… When black professors from overseas were included, the figure rose to 75. This is still 0.4% of all 17,375 professors at UK universities.”

If their scanty numbers were their only problem, perhaps the black academics could have taken solace in the fact that black people are a minority in the UK. But, according to Harry Goulbourne, professor of sociology at London’s South Bank University, “while the crude racism of the past had gone, universities were riddled with passive racism… As a black man aspiring to be a professor, I had to publish twice as many academic papers as my white peers.”

Goulbourne’s view was shared by Heidi Mirza, an emeritus professor at London University’s Institute of Education. According to her, British universities are “nepotistic and cliquey… It is all about who you know.” 

She said when she chaired equality committees at three UK universities, “we [got] reports from human resources and [said] ‘Oh my goodness, we really need to do something about this’. But the committees are on the margins of the decision-making.” 

Which left Hugh Muir, a black man writing for The Guardian on 27 May 2011 to say: “Too many black youths [in the UK] are being jailed… too few making their way to our elite universities. Now we know that when they do make it to university, the chances of them encountering a black professor seem fairly remote. Does this matter? I think it does.”

Explaining why, Muir said: “It matters in terms of aspiration. Black professors represent success. Human beings like to replicate success. They show the gifted student what is possible if they work hard. Their scarcity, by contrast, douses ambition. And more than anything else, we need ambition.”

Muir blamed “self-perpetuating elites [and] heads of faculty raising aloft others who remind them of themselves” for the “failure to progress [black] talent through the system”.

This is “not racism per se,” Hugh said, “but institutional racism if we are to use the term as was intended by old Stokely Carmichael when he invented it.”

It is this alarming, and ongoing, situation that has sparked the current petition campaign, which is particularly targeting Oxford and Cambridge, and appealing to their vice chancellors to drag themselves into the 21st century and “stop racially excluding black academics from equal job opportunities”. 

But will they listen? The answer can be gleaned from what Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice chancellors, told The Guardian in May 2011: “We recognise that there is a serious issue about the lack of black representation among senior staff in universities, though this is not a problem affecting universities alone, but one affecting wider society as a whole.”