Leading black academics are calling for an urgent culture change at UK universities as figures show there are just 50 black British professors out of more than 14,000, and the number has barely changed in eight years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Only the University of Birmingham has more than two black British professors, and six out of 133 have more than two black professors from the UK or abroad. The statistics, from 2009/10, define black as Black Caribbean or Black African.
Black academics are demanding urgent action and argue that they have to work twice as hard as their white peers and are passed over for promotion.
A study to be published in October found ethnic minorities at UK universities feel “isolated and marginalised”.
Heidi Mirza, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, University of London, is demanding new legislation to require universities to tackle discrimination.
Laws brought in last month give employers, including universities, the option to hire someone from an ethnic minority if they are under-represented in their organisation and are as well-qualified for a post as other candidates. This is known as positive action. Mirza wants the law amended so that universities are compelled to use positive action in recruitment.
She said there were too many “soft options” for universities and there needed to be penalties for those that paid lip-service to the under-representation of minorities. Positive discrimination, where an employer can limit recruitment to someone of a particular race or ethnicity, is illegal.
The HESA figures show black British professors make up just 0.4% of all British professors – 50 out of 14,385.
This is despite the fact that 2.8% of the population of England and Wales is Black African or Black Caribbean, according to the Office for National Statistics. Only 10 of the 50 black British professors are women.
The figures reflect professors in post in December 2009. When black professors from overseas were included, the figure rose to 75. This is still 0.4%of all 17,375 professors at UK universities. The six universities with more than two black professors from the UK or overseas include London Metropolitan, Nottingham, and Brunel universities. Some 94.3% of British professors are white, and 3.7% are Asian. Some 1.2% of all academics – not just professors – are black. There are no black vice-chancellorsin the UK.
Harry Goulbourne, professor of sociology at London South Bank University, said that while the crude racism of the past had gone, universities were riddled with “passive racism”. He said that, as a black man aspiring to be a professor, he had had to publish twice as many academic papers as his white peers. He said he had switched out of the field of politics, because it was not one that promoted minorities. He called for a “cultural shift” inside the most prestigious universities.
Mirza said UK universities were “nepotistic and cliquey”. “It is all about who you know,” she said.
Audrey Osler, a visiting professor of education at Leeds University, described the statistics as “a tragedy”. “Not just for students, but because they show we are clearly losing some very, very able people from British academia.”
Nelarine Cornelius, a professor and associate dean at Bradford University, said that while universities took discrimination very seriously when it came to students, they paid far less attention when it concerned staff.
Many of the brightest black students were seeking academic posts in the United States where promotion prospects were fairer, they said. Others said too little was being done to encourage clever black students to consider academia and that many were put off by the relatively low pay and short contracts.
Universities UK – the umbrella group for vice-chancellors – acknowledged that there was a problem. Nicola Dandridge, its chief executive, said: “We recognise that there is a serious issue about lack of black representation among senior staff in universities, though this is not a problem affecting universities alone, but one affecting wider society as a whole.”
A study by the Equality Challenge Unit, which promotes equality in higher education, found universities had “informal practices” when it came to promoting staff and that this may be discriminating against ethnic minorities. Its findings, to be published this autumn, will call on universities’ equality and diversity departments to be strengthened.
Mirza said she had chaired equality committees at three universities. “We get reports from human resources and say ‘oh my goodness, we really need to do something about this’. But the committees are on the margins of the decision-making.”
Nicola Rollock, an academic researcher in race and education at the Institute of Education, University of London, said there needed to be greater understanding of how decisions were made inside universities. Race equality in universities risked being “an appendage” or merely limited to data collected in monitoring forms as a part of new job applications. “We are still far more comfortable talking about social class than race in universities,” she said.
• This article was amended on 31 May 2011 to clarify text cut during the editing process.