One of universities’ chief successes over the past 20 years has been the increase in black, Asian and minority ethnic students (BAME) enrolling. Yet with university budgets tightening as a result of projected declines in student numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is a risk this progress could be reversed.

The same structural racism which has generated the inequalities that have resulted in the disproportionate number of BAME people suffering and dying from the impact of Covid-19 are at play in universities. Even before the pandemic, there was significant underrepresentation of BAME academics, and in particular those who describe themselves as black.

According to recent data from Advance HE, the sector is missing more than 300 black professors and more than 2,000 black academics. Whereas about 11% of all academics are professors, only 4.7% of black academics are professors. BAME staff are typically found in the most junior positions, often on fixed-term contracts, which also places them in the most vulnerable positions when institutions have to cut back. 

The data also shows there are fewer black academics in the research-intensive institutions which are less reliant on student numbers for income. These institutions are already well-resourced with income from research and other sources such as donations from alumni. 

By contrast, the inner-city institutions which employ most black academics and professors are those which are most likely to be affected by the predicted fall in student numbers, and which lack the financial flexibility to weather the coronavirus crisis.

There is already evidence of universities resorting to job cuts and reducing staff numbers by allowing temporary contracts to expire. The University of Roehampton is thought to be the first to announce a voluntary severance scheme for permanent staff in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Paradoxically, almost all the extra government funding awarded to universities to help respond to the pandemic is also being awarded to research-intensive institutions. This is despite the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has in inner-city areas, where universities are more likely to have expertise in attracting BAME students and helping them to succeed.

If black academics’ jobs are cut due to tightening university budgets, the worry is that they may not be replaced. This is because universities’ hiring processes were known to be discriminatory even before the pandemic. In our highly racialised world, it is easy to conclude that the missing 300 black professors are the result of a lack of suitable candidates. In reality, it’s a clear example of structural racism: black applicants were much less likely to be shortlisted, interviewed or appointed regardless of their qualifications and experience.

With the greater financial constraints in the post-pandemic world, universities will face more challenges to appoint, maintain and promote BAME academics unless we see effective enforcement of the law and good professional practice.

Although universities have always had policies and legal instruments such as the 2010 Equality Act to ensure equality in terms of employment outcomes, data from Advance HE and the University and College Union confirm that in practice these don’t work.

So how can BAME staff be confident about their prospects in the financial fallout of coronavirus? Universities must be careful and strategic in how they respond to the pandemic to ensure BAME staff will not be disproportionately affected, not just in terms of their wellbeing but to maintain their limited numbers. 

Now is the time to remind those making decisions about redundancies, promotions and recruitment that BAME academics are going to be key players in the post-pandemic world if we are to decolonise universities, and improve retention, progression, degree-awarding and employability. 

With the sector still struggling to respond to powerful student movements including Rhodes Must Fall, Why Isn’t My Professor Black? and Why Is My Curriculum White?, any intervention designed to support the 23% of students who identify as BAME will be pointless unless matched by similar support for their academic equivalents. 

Ultimately, a reduction in the number of BAME academics will send the wrong message to students and society. Universities mustn’t waste the momentum created by the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s time to decolonise curriculums as well as the whole university system, including by tackling the underrepresentation of black professors.




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