All white leadership: University Challenge


In the wake of Black History Month, it seems as though the debates on higher education’s snow-capped institutions persist. In an article recently published by the Guardian, the deputy director at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Research in Race and Education, Professor Khalwant Bhopal suggested that, “black minority-ethnic academics feel the goal posts are often moved when they apply for jobs or promotions”—fundamentally arguing that there are not enough BAME professors, vice-chancellors or provosts in British higher education.

So far, the conversation surrounding higher education has focused on racial disparities being reflected in student demographics and level of achievements, as well as on the push to decolonize higher education syllabi nationwide. Professor Bhopal’s claim sheds light on a different facet of the critique to higher education that has not been highlighted, and that is most definitely backed by empirical data research.

Professor Bhopal focuses on documenting and analyzing the marginalization of BAME individuals from positions of social, academic, or political influence. She, as well as others, have found that for the first time, attendance of BAME students in universities are in record numbers—yet, this has failed to be reflected at higher and senior levels. No black individuals have been recorded as managers, directors, and senior officials according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency in the last three years. A 2015 report from the Runnymede Trust showed that just 0.5% of professors are black. The Colour of Power Project, a project in partnership with Operation Black Vote, Green Park, and the Guardian, reports that there are currently only three BAME vice-chancellors: Baroness Valories Amos at SOAS, Dame Minouche Shafik at LSE and Max Lu at the University of Surrey.

As with many multi-faceted issues surrounding racial inequalities, the issue with leadership still clearly persists. It persists because the stories of those BAME individuals that success stories are regarded as mavericks rather than the norm.

In fact, the three vice-chancellors identified at the top of the higher education system are impressive individuals who have risen through alternative routes—none of them came from an academic background. Baroness Amos is a former Labour cabinet minister and has been at the highest levels of executive at the United Nations, Max Lu is “primarily a product of the Australian academic system” according to the Guardian, and Dame Shafik was a household name at the world bank. None of them had ordinary trajectories in academia; yet all of them had extraordinary worldly trajectories in other sectors.

Leadership that reflects the rise in numbers of BAME students is necessary as institutions become more and more distant from racial representation. Reports indicate that right now the ratio of white students to professors is on average 50:1 while for black students it’s 2000:1. This sends a clear, discouraging message to future generations: if you want to be in a top post within academia, the opportunities are almost non-existent. And of course without Black leaders who do the Black students aspire to be like, and perhaps even more importantly this lack of diversity must have a knock on effect to the type of knowledge, and views that come out of these institutions.

Maria Julia Pieraccioni