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BA Social Policy and Criminology student Deja Osei-West explores the impact of racial disparities within and between higher education institutions (HEIs). 

As a final year student at a Russell Group university, I can safely say that I have been isolated from my peers; not because I am ‘not sociable’ but rather because I am a black student at a ‘white’ university. I spent all three years of my degree asking, “where are all the black students?”

It is generally accepted that Russell Group universities in some respects provide better prospects for students than non-Russell group universities, yet black students attend Russell Group universities in much lower numbers. I learned this as I conducted qualitative research regarding the differences in experience for black students within my dissertation on attainment disparities within higher education. This is not to say that non-Russell Group universities are ‘less than’ Russell Group universities; however, it is clear that there are racial disparities between these types of universities. We need to reframe racial discourses, focusing on the black experience (or lack thereof) at universities across the UK by questioning why the number of black students varies at different types of universities, the reasons for this and what can be done to change it for future black students.

Research has shown that non-Russell Group universities have a cohort of approximately 8% of black students versus less than 4% at Russell Group institutions. It seems as though the more prestigious the institution, the less black people (BAME) there are: in 2018 there were less than 2% at Oxbridge universities. This suggests that the majority of black students will not be in receipt of the best opportunities. This can also be seen at other levels of education such as A-levels, whereby black students were the lowest achieving percentage for 3 As or better, thus suggesting that there is a racial element to teaching within the UK more generally (Department of Education, 2021).

To compound this, within the black community, many students are put off going to Russell Group or Oxbridge universities by fear of being isolated from other black students due to the lack of BAME students. Therefore, black students experience an educational paradox where they either choose an institution that may provide them with better opportunities but isolate them, or go to a university that may provide a better sense of community but may not provide the quality of education given at Russell Group or Oxbridge universities. This paradox is something that white students are automatically excluded from as they are the majority.

There is a double exclusion of students from Russell Group or Oxbridge universities as they are not only excluded from mainstream events but also from their own peers. At non-Russell Group universities, it has been made clear that societies such as the African Caribbean Society have provided a sense of community to students. Russell Group universities may have fewer black students in general, and so these societies are most likely to be less resourced and accessed than other societies. A prime example I found within my own research was a Non-Binary black student I interviewed who maintained that “…finding the LGBT society […]and it being very predominantly white, I couldn't really relate to a lot of things that they were talking about.” Further emphasising the ways in which community for black students is absent and amplified within the realm of Russell Group and Oxbridge institutions.

Universities are to an extent aware of the health implications of isolation at university and the types of risks that this poses to students. However, failing to recognise the impacts of race can have detrimental effects on the experiences of black students overall, with specific reference to black students at Russell Group or Oxbridge universities. The lack of diversity on campus can also contribute to greater levels of ignorance and racism whether that is overt or covert. For example, my own dissertation research found that some black students were told by white students that they were, “Lucky to be [t]here” at the Russell Group institution they studied at, suggesting it is considered alien to even see black students at certain prestigious universities. This means that black students are less protected as these inequalities can easily go unnoticed by the white majority. Additionally, a lot of the time the policies put in place to remedy racism on campus promote interest convergence; these policies only seek to reinforce white supremacy and actually support the white majority (Rollock and Gillborn, 2011). Anonymous marking (which is when students’ names are removed from their assignments and replaced with a number) can be perceived as reducing ethnic bias. However, it fails in execution, as a lot of the time the topics students pick are personal to them and so if I as a black student decide to discuss a black matter, it singles me out, as it is a niche subject and so anonymous marking proves futile. There can sometimes be a lack of transparency surrounding the whole process as well, so it is often easily manipulated to suit the white majority of staff and students.

Societies that promote diversity, such as African and Caribbean Society (ACS), are placed under a lot more strain as they may not be recognised as important hubs for black students to meet and build relationships, since there is such a small minority within higher education. These ramifications are significant and further impact not just the university experiences of these students, but also future opportunities. These conflicts experienced by young black people can also be exacerbated if they have come from more urban areas and are used to diversity—it can be a sudden culture shock to be a distinct minority if you are not used to that already. This can easily compound other factors such as moving away from home and not knowing anyone, further promoting the possibility of isolation and mental health issues.

On a personal level, I would have greatly benefitted from my university making an effort to ensure that black students were given the spaces to build community, such as giving more support to societies like those discussed above. If there were events we felt comfortable to go to that catered for us, we would be more likely to see others who look like us. There needs to be more research conducted regarding the black experience specifically, as the experience varies significantly from other minority groups. There needs to be acknowledgement regarding these poor percentage demographics with effective policy that not only serves to support and help black students within the UK institutions but also not to perpetuate white supremacy in its make up. Black students are ignored and marginalised and it is the most fitting time for that to change.

Deja Osei-West is a third year social policy and criminology student studying at the University of Birmingham. She has a passion for improving ethnic inequalities with a focus on promoting positive sources of blackness; she has been fortunate enough to conduct her dissertation research around this issue, as well as contributing to discourses surrounding diversity and equality with scholars at the University of Birmingham. Additionally, she was given the opportunity to pedagogically review her module lead’s lecture on Ethnic disproportionality.

Deja is well versed in these issues from both an educational and personal level and she believes it is her purpose to raise awareness of these inequalities to bring about change. Post-graduation, she has already started a summer internship working for the Civil Service at the Office for National Statistics; she intends to follow a career path in social action, whether that is through the civil service and the public sector or through third party organisations. She will continue disseminating her research to ensure that there is a platform for issues of this nature.