Challenging times for black academics in the UK

It has been a busy, productive and exciting week for me as an emerging academic. On Tuesday morning I flew to Paris, delivered a presentation on my PhD thesis, returned to London on Wednesday and then presented a paper at a conference on Thursday at the University of East London, organised by its Royal Docklands Business School (RDBS).

It was the 7th Colloquium on Ethnic Relations organised by the BAME Network in which this year’s theme was ‘Ethnicity Matters.’ I was invited to submit a paper at this conference back in March of this year by Acting Associate Dean, Dr Gil Robinson, the principal organiser of the event, who has been developing conferences for black and ethnic minority academics for many years.

The main objectives of such conferences is to offer a platform for the presentation of research  that adopts critical approaches in the examination of the experiences of ethnic minority groups without problematizing or objectifying the subjects. Such studies are powerful, drawing on the epistemologies of world cultures; and often venturing into unexplored areas.  Sadly, research of this nature carried out by ethnic minority academics is often marginalised within the academy.

Another huge benefit of conferences like Ethnicity Matters is the focus on nurturing emerging academics like Tara Walcott and I, both PhD researchers; enabling us to share a stage with senior, established academics like Assistant Professor Dr Mekada Graham, a British born academic who now teaches at Dominguez Hills California State University. Such exposure helps to develop skills in writing research papers, presenting ideas and networking, forming an important part of our academic development.

My paper: The challenges facing black academics in the UK, explores the under-representation of African Caribbean academics within the academy noting that in the 2011/12 academic year, there were only 70 African Caribbean professors out of a total of 17,465 and just 2390 African Caribbean academics in total out of 181,185.

My paper argues that the paucity of senior black academics at UK universities is due to the accumulative impact of contributory factors such as attainment at secondary level, the experience and progression of black students within HE, access to postgraduate programmes, power relations within the academy and the failure of equal opportunities legislation to tackle the problem.

My paper is an analysis of existing literature, designed to raise consciousness of the key issues; like for example, studies which reveal that black students are less likely to access research studentships, a key path into academia. This reality and a casualty of this inequality stared me in the face last Friday at a BME researcher’s conference in Birmingham organised by BERA.

Fasil Demsash, joined York university in 2007 as a PhD candidate working on a research project on the use of immigrant maths experts to address the shortfall of STEM teachers in the UK. He was offered self-funded places at three universities but no bursaries or studentships.

Fasil originally fled Ethiopia in 2001 as an undergraduate, after being arrested and tortured by police due to involvement with a student democratic movement. He later settled in Canada, completing a Bachelor’s degree and writing a research paper on the challenges facing immigrant teachers in Canada.

He has worked hard to support himself but after losing his job and his wife has been very low and said he was on the verge of giving up his studies. The problem he faces in accessing research funds is largely due to the fact that his status as an EEA national which ran from 2007 expired in January of this year and is in the process of being renewed. Meanwhile, when applying for research funding as an international student he has been told that he is ineligible because he is an EEA national.

To end on a positive note, I would just like to say how much I enjoyed the presentation on Thursday by Tara Walcott, entitled: An investigation into the phenomenological experiences of Black Caribbean people who have attained a good degree in the UK. Her paper examines the factors that contribute to the academic success of African Caribbean graduates who gained a first or upper second class degree.

The immense value in this research is the shift from the dominant discourse on ‘black underachievement’ to a focus on academic success. Identifying factors that can contribute to high academic achievement can assist with the development of national strategies to raise degree attainment, which is a pre-requisite for careers within the academy.

Let’s hope that more senior academics follow the example set by Dr Gil Robinson in helping to mentor and develop emerging academics, in promoting critical scholarship and in fostering a collaborative, supportive research environment for black and minority ethnic academics.

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