How universities can address the lack of Black scholars in academia

In the UK, out of 164 university vice-chancellors, only two are Black. Professor David Mba was recently appointed as the first Black vice-chancellor at Birmingham City University.

There are 165 Black professors in the UK – out of 23,515. The disparity becomes even more alarming when examining the representation of Black female professors. Only 61 UK professors are Black women.

As the adage goes, you can’t be what you cannot see. Given that research has highlighted how important having a BAME mentor can be to BAME students, it’s likely that the lack of representation in both professorial roles and senior university management could adversely affect the aspirations of young Black scholars.

In the three academic years from 2016-17 to 2018-19, UK research councils granted 19,868 funded PhD studentships – but only 245 were allocated to students of Black and mixed-Black heritage.

Taking action

From 2021, I have been the lead for the the Accomplished Study Programme in Research Excellence (ASPIRE) project, which works to address the underrepresentation of Black students at PhD level. The project is a collaborative effort between Sheffield Hallam University, Manchester Metropolitan University and charity Advance HE.

The programme offers classes and workshops on topics such as academic writing and research skills to scholars of Black and mixed Black heritage, and provides each student with a Black academic mentor. We have recently published an article on the project’s impact.

Group of people standing on stairs
Photo from an Aspire inspirational speaker event.
Ifedapo Francis Awolowo, CC BY-NC-ND

The project has provided mentorship to 46 scholars so far, as part of two cohorts of students. Six have already started PhDs, and a further four have been accepted for PhD study. Overall, we found that the project increased the confidence of students who, at the beginning of the programme, rated their skills as lower than their peers. One student said:

I have received an unconditional offer to pursue a PhD at Leeds University and all thanks to Aspire. I know for certain this would not be the case had I not joined the programme last year. The immense support we received, the talks, the community was just what I needed to believe in myself, that I am capable of achieving my goals.

The project was also beneficial to the academic staff who took part as mentors. One said:

I now have a deeper understanding of the unconscious constraints that tends to limit Black and mixed-Black heritage students’ academic engagement. With this understanding, my zest for a more inclusive and culturally tolerant interaction has been rewarded with higher attendance and participation in classroom activities by my students.

Aspire is not the only project working to encourage Black students to consider academia. Others include the Equity in Doctoral Education through Innovation and Partnership project. This works to improve the representation of minoritised groups in PhD study at at Nottingham Trent University, Sheffield Hallam University and Liverpool John Moores University.

Likewise, the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education is focused on improved access to PhD study for students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Both programmes promote equality in access to research degrees and in university admissions.

We’re also witnessing a positive trend towards more ring-fenced scholarships targeted specifically for Black students to undertake PhD studies in our universities.

Forward momentum

But while these scholarships represent a positive step forward, they are not sufficient. It’s crucial for the sector to embrace an anti-racist stance through both words and actions to lead to the change in representation and experience needed.

Universities can make this happen by promoting successful Black academics who have already met the requirements for becoming professors. There should also be a clear blueprint for professorial promotions, with consistent criteria for all academics.

Additionally, it’s important to enhance diversity in university leadership teams by appointing more Black academics to senior positions within universities. The increased presence of Black senior leaders within academia and Black professors will serve as an inspiring beacon for aspiring Black scholars.

A multiracial leadership team is essential for addressing the unique challenges of a diverse student body. We must take decisive steps to dismantle systemic barriers hindering Black people in academia.

By doing so, we can create a more racially inclusive, equitable and intellectually vibrant higher education sector that benefits all members of our society.

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