David Cameron's focus on Black & minority ethnic student access is a modest but welcome first step

Earlier this week, David Cameron stunned those of us committed to campaigning for race equality. He dared name discrimination – “overt, unconscious, institutional” - as an issue facing Black and minority ethnic populations in the criminal justice system, the armed forces, and - significantly - UK universities. Writing for the Sunday Times, he announced plans to legislate for a new duty to compel higher education institutions to routinely publish data on the characteristics (gender, ethnicity, social class) of students applying for and being offered a university place.

The Prime Minister’s sudden proclamations on race and racism should be welcomed with caution - this is politics, after all. And, as some have rumoured this may be a ploy to redirect the Black and minority ethnic vote from Jeremy Corbyn. Notwithstanding such observations, we should not be lulled into a false sense of relief regarding the depth of this government’s understanding and engagement with race equality and social justice. For example, it was the Conservatives (albeit as part of a Coalition) who introduced fees for employees intending to take their employer to tribunal. It was the Conservatives who drastically cut the budget of the body – the Equality and Human Rights’ Commission – responsible for advancing equality in Great Britain. And it was David Cameron who just weeks ago spoke of the need for Muslim women to speak English as a way to improve their integration and adherence to those so-called ‘British values’.

The Prime Minister is right to point to the failures of higher education to engage seriously with race but he is wrong to merely locate attention on access. Indeed Black and minority ethnic students are well represented across the sector though, as he points out, they are more likely to be found at post 1992 universities. However, the broader and more damning issue is the Black-white degree attainment gap. While around three quarters of white students leave university with a first or upper second degree classification, this is true for just under half of all Black students. And this remains the case even when Black and white students enter higher education with the same grades. By focusing on access alone, the Prime Minister is selling Black and minority ethnic students a false promise of equality.

There is a second damning issue that the government should address, namely the poor representation of senior Black and minority ethnic faculty. While 11.2% of white staff are professors, only 4.5% of Black staff hold roles at this level. Indeed when SOAS appointed its first Black female university leader, Baroness Valerie Amos, it had to look outside of the sector to do so. Black and minority ethnic faculty report being undermined, their experience being called into question, and hitting a concrete ceiling in the progression ladder at the point of senior lecturer. They are also more likely to consider leaving the UK to work overseas compared with their white counterparts. UK universities are failing not just Black and minority ethnic students they are also failing racially minoritised staff.

Black and minority ethnic students speak of the importance of a university climate and curriculum that reflects and includes their experiences. These same students also speak of the need to see a university workforce that comprises people who look like them. Indeed the high profile #RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Oxford epitomizes precisely these concerns and is not, as some have incorrectly countered, simply interested in the removal of a statue.

Those within the higher education sector are beginning to stir – some with reluctance, some defensively and yet others with well meaning – but they have yet to truly engage with the issues facing Black and minority ethnic staff or to address the Black-white degree attainment gap. As the principles of Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter indicate, these are not separate problems. So my message to the Prime Minister; a surprising but important start but there is so much more to do.

Dr Nicola Rollock is Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race & Education at the University of Birmingham and is a Patron of the Equality Challenge Unit’s Race Equality Charter.