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By Amanda Arbouin

How can universities tackle insidious racism in a meaningful and effective way? This question is at the heart of my book, Black British Graduates: untold stories[i], which explores the educational journeys and career outcomes of ten Black British graduates.

Participant narratives convey a richness of emotions, as the book [ii]considers the impact of race, class and gender in education and graduate careers. Drawing on the accounts of these educational successes, I highlight some of the key features that help or hinder Black learners along their way.

Despite a promising start to their educational journeys, most of my respondents left school with few useful qualifications. However, a combination of serendipity and stepping stones led them to higher education, where they encountered a range of positive and negative influences.

The absence of diversity in academic staff and curriculum were strong themes. The reluctance of universities to address such issues in any robust way was recently the focus of the BBC news article ‘University racism ‘complacency’ warning’[iii]. Black British academic staff are grossly under-represented and tend to be concentrated in insecure, part time contracts at the lower levels of organisational hierarchies.

Black British students are over-represented in higher education, but under-represented in the most prestigious institutions, where they are less likely to be offered a place than white applicants with the same grades (Boliver, 2013?)[iv]. Blind marking has never become standard in universities and so it’s perhaps no surprise that Black students are less likely to graduate with ‘good’ degrees and less likely to be satisfied with their educational experiences. At the same time, the curriculum in higher education is extremely Eurocentric, perpetuating a colonial mentality and largely excluding the values and contributions of thinkers of colour.

So what can universities do to effect real change? In a word, they need to invest. Invest in recruiting Black educators; invest in training all educators to raise their awareness of the impact of race; and invest in developing a decolonised curriculum.

Whenever I have asked white educational recruiters why they don’t have more black staff, the standard response is along the lines of:

  1. ‘we don’t get enough black applicants’ or
  2. ‘we have to recruit the best person for the job’.

The sub-text for standard response (2) is that Black applicants are just not good enough. However, when we look at the statistics (and listen to participants’ narratives) relating to Black professionals they tell another story.

There are ever growing numbers of minoritized graduates, because there is an over-representation of students from all minoritized backgrounds in higher education (ECU, 2014)[v]. Yet unemployment rates for minorities are ‘significantly higher’ than for whites (EHRC, 2015)[vi] and Black graduates are often overqualified for the jobs they are able to get.

Black workers have also experienced the biggest pay drop in these times of austerity. The TUC (2016)[vii] notes that minoritized graduates earn 10% less than their white counterparts and Black graduates earn a whopping 23% less than similarly qualified white workers. In effect, the more qualified Black workers are, the bigger the pay gap.

Turning to standard response (1), The McGregor Smith Review ‘Race in the workplace’[viii] identifies steps recruiters can take to tackle this issue. Firstly, employers can use diversity recruitment agencies, who specialise in identifying high calibre applicants from minoritized backgrounds. Secondly, they can use diverse interview panels, as recruiters tend to look more favourably upon people with whom they identify. Thirdly, they can set themselves diversity recruitment targets and then monitor and review them on a regular basis to ensure that they are eventually met.

Investing in ongoing training for recruiters and educators can instigate lasting change. This training should focus on raising their awareness of (a) the impact of racial and cultural difference among students and employees; (b) how inequality is perpetuated; and (c) their own unconscious bias. This would improve the diversity of higher education environments and simultaneously challenge some of the pejorative stereotypes that hinder Black learners’ entry to and progress within HEIs. As one of my research participants put it, ‘There’s a need for change in how we’re educated, because we’re in a system that doesn’t say anything positive about Black people’.

This leads me to the curriculum. Investing time and money in to developing a decolonised curriculum would demonstrate real commitment to challenging racism at a much deeper level. University departments could employ researchers to integrate non-European values across all disciplines and at all levels of the education system. My research[ix] identified a desire, particularly among the women, to pursue research relating to Black communities. Universities could harness this desire by applying the same principles they do for scientific research – that is, by advertising and funding it.

This would serve to tackle the insidious nature of racism, as consistently including minoritized cultures in education would convey the message that they are just as valuable and important as white Western cultures. Implementing change of this kind in higher education would inevitably filter down into compulsory education, because school teachers learn their trade in universities. They pass their knowledge on to young learners in schools, who are obliged to go through the education system. As such, a decolonised curriculum would gradually improve people’s appreciation of minoritized cultures at a societal level.

It is incumbent upon our education system to tackle racism in every way possible, because of its central position in all of our lives. Our universities are engines for the creation of knowledge in our society and must take the lead in committing to change at a strategic level. By adopting a joined up approach they have the capacity to help create a more harmonious and progressive Britain.


Acknowledgement excerpt from the book:

Inspiration for the book’s subtitle, ‘Untold stories’, came from one of my favourite songs by the Jamaican reggae artist Buju Banton. Every time I hear his words ‘What is to stop the youths from get out of control, Full up of education yet no own no payroll’, I grieve for the many black graduates in the UK who, despite playing by the rules, find themselves struggling to reap the rewards in a society that continues to stack the odds against them. I dedicate this book to them and all those who seek to redress the balance by striving for social justice.

[i] Arbouin, A (2018. Black British Graduates: untold stories. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

[ii] Arbouin, A (2018. Black British Graduates: untold stories. London: UCL Institute of Education Press


[iv] Boliver, V. (2013) ‘How fair is access to more prestigious UK universities?’. British Journal of Sociology, 64 (2), 344–64.

[v] ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) (2014) Equality in Higher Education: Statistical report 2014. London: Equality Challenge Unit. Online. (accessed 18 August 2017).

[vi] EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) (2015) Is Britain Fairer? The state of equality and human rights 2015. London: Equality and Human Rights Commission. Online. (accessed 8 April 2017).

[vii] TUC (Trades Union Congress) (2016) ‘Black workers with degrees earn a quarter less than white counterparts, finds TUC’. Press release, 1 February. Online. (accessed 24 January 2017).


[ix] Arbouin, A (2018. Black British Graduates: untold stories. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

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