This article is more than 4 years old

BAME academics are already under-represented. The response to Covid-19 could reduce our numbers even further.

As universities prepare to respond to the financial losses of Covid-19, Winston Morgan warns of a potentially devastating impact on BAME staff.
This article is more than 4 years old

Winston Morgan is a Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry at the University of East London.

The coronavirus pandemic will probably have serious financial implications for universities going forward. Already university management teams are contingency planning to respond to the predicted reduced income from the lower student numbers.

Any action universities take to protect their financial position is likely to adversely impact on staff, not just on their wellbeing, but the level of redundancies, promotions and recruitment. In terms of the initial negative medical outcomes from Covid-19, we have already seen that the immediate effects are being felt by the most marginalised groups in our society, particularly BAME groups.

In the higher education sector questions are already being asked about the impact on BAME students, but could Covid-19 be equally devastating for BAME staff particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Stereotypes and special protections

As a result of the frenzied response to the pandemic we have seen some senior NHS managers suggesting that BAME staff should be offered special protection or removed from front line medical services to “protect them from the virus”. Unfortunately, such headlines play into the narrative of BAME staff being somehow more challenging and costly to employ. Such stereotypes will not just apply to professions allied to medicine but could easily spread to areas such as higher education.

There is no doubt that the same structural racism which has generated the inequalities which resulted in the disproportionate number of people described as BAME being infected and dying from Covid-19 will also be at play in higher education.

Even before the pandemic, there was significant underrepresentation in the higher education sector amongst groups described as BAME, but particularly those academics racialised as black. According to 2019 data from Advance HE, the sector is already missing over 300 black professors and over 1500 black academics.

That is because whereas about 10 per cent of all academics are professors, only 4.5 per cent of black academics are professors. When combined with the general underrepresentation of black academics in the sector overall, this extrapolates to well over 300 black professors missing in the sector. The same data also shows that BAME staff are in the most junior positions and are most likely to be on fixed-term contracts which also place them in the most vulnerable positions when institutions have to cut back.

A question of place

The Advance HE data will also show there are fewer academics racialised as black in research-intensive institutions which are less reliant on student numbers for income. These institutions are already well resourced with income from research and other sources such as donations from alumni.

By contrast, the inner-city institutions which employ most academic and professors racialised as black are those which are most likely to be affected by the predicted fall in student numbers. Paradoxically, almost all the extra government funding being awarded to universities to help respond to and understand the impact of the pandemic is also being awarded to the research-intensive institutions.

Despite the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 being in the inner cities many with local universities with a much higher proportion of BAME staff, many with expertise in the unfashionable areas linked to the consequences of structural racism now being investigated.

Employment practices

The issues around institutional income will be compounded by employment practices in the sector which have been known for some time to be discriminatory even before the pandemic.

In our highly racialised world, an easy conclusion to make is that the missing 300 was brought about by the lack of suitable black professorial candidates with experience or potential to make the grade. This deficit assumption forms the basis for the widespread and constant push to send aspiring racialised black professionals in all areas on development courses or mentorship schemes.

In reality, the missing 300 is a clear example of structural racism, where applicants racialised as black are much less likely to be shortlisted, and even if shortlisted and interviewed, are less likely to be appointed, regardless of their qualifications and experience.

These outcomes were documented at a time when there were fewer financial constraints. With the expected greater financial constraints in the post-pandemic world finally arrives, all BAME candidates will face even greater challenges to be appointed, remain in posts and to be promoted unless we see effective enforcement of the law and good professional practice.

Although institutions have a range of legal instruments to ensure equality in terms of employment and to protect staff with protected characteristics such as the 2010 Equality Act, and mechanisms such as the public sector equality duty and equality impact assessments. The Advance HE and similar data from UCU confirms that in practice these instruments are not effective in the normal course of events, never mind in the financial fallout of a pandemic.

If the sector is not careful, structural racism could mean that as the sector responds to the stresses of the pandemic, BAME staff will be further disproportionately affected, not just in terms of their wellbeing but in terms of their existence in the sector.

Now is the time to remind those making decisions about redundancies, promotions and recruitment that BAME academics are going to be key in the post-pandemic world in terms of the inclusive environment on campus and the decolonised university.

With the sector still struggling to respond to powerful student campaigns like Rhodes must fall, why is my curriculum white? and why isn’t my professor black? any intervention designed to support the 23 per cent of students who identify as BAME would be pointless unless matched by similar support for their academic equivalents. Ultimately a reduction of the number of BAME academics particularly racialised as black will be sending the wrong message to all students and staff and would be counterproductive.

5 responses to “BAME academics are already under-represented. The response to Covid-19 could reduce our numbers even further.

  1. From my reading of the literature, specifically ‘Circulation’ Vol 109, No.21 there does appear to be some very real genetic differences that make some races much more vulnerable to the CCP virus (Covid-19), the oxidative stress and ACE2 involvement, not just as a target for CCPv means more circulatory system related deaths are likely in black Africans and their descendants than whites, the picture is less clear for those like me with mixed heritage genetics.

    Another factor, also well known, is the inability of dark skinned people to make sufficient Vitamin D in latitudes away from the equator, this also affects whites but to a lessor degree, having lost their darker pigmentation to enable Vitamin D production as they moved further away from the equator. However many of them are also in need of supplementation, especially in winter or those like us lab-rats or care-home residents who never see the sun for long enough to product enough.

  2. Neil as a scientist who reads and understands the literature, I can tell you that there is no link between the genes that determine race and those that control your immune system. Genes do play a role in how we respond to most diseases but these do not linked with race in a causal way. The vitamin D story is also false, yes some people with darker skins may have lower levels of vitamin D but not necessarily to make them susceptible to the virus. As yet not proof has been provided around this virus only speculation. One famous study people quote about Vitamin and the immune system would not help their argument as in that vitamin D deficiency actually activates parts of the immune system causing autoimmune disease. Sadly, some people will look for any excuse because they do not want to accept structural racism which makes us all culpable.

    Can I suggest you read the article in the link.

  3. If we take into account how COVID-19 is spreading across Sub-Saharian Africa (much slower than initially predicted), it is clear that we can’t take only genetic differences into account. BAME individuals are disproportionately present in the frontline services, not only in hospitals and care homes, but as cleaners, delivery drivers, can drivers, etc. It is a complex scenario that demands thoughtful solutions. We should not shy away from discussing the pivotal role structural racism plays in COVID-19 “race selectivity”.

  4. Very interesting read indeed . I don’t agree that genetics play a big a role as they would have us believe . The simple truth is that we are not given the necessary care that we require and it’s down to one fact only . Call me shallow if you so chooses , but that is my view

  5. This is a very interesting and timely piece which asks us all a series of difficult questions. So many thanks to Dr Morgan for an excellent piece.
    As for some of the comments, I am really worried by the assertions made by those who pursue the kind of biological determinist arguments reflected in Neil’s contribution. The fact that he only gave his first name perhaps betrays his onuw lack of confidence in the assertion he makes. Nonetheless, it is a important that such assertions do not go unchallenged, and in this regard i totally agree with the basic observation made by Maria Arruda and Vaughn. For sure, we are not completely sure why there is a clear overrepresentation of BME people in the UK and US in relation to COVID-19 but that does not mean we present genetic or other racial factors as a given truth. I would certainly advice readers to have a look at a very recent piece in the Lancet titled Sharpening the global focus on ethnicity and race in the time of COVID-19 ( ). The authors conclude that:

    “The evidence in the UK and the USA in the time of COVID-19 has sharpened the focus on inequalities neglected for a long time. Therefore, hand in hand, political action is needed to tackle xenophobia and racism, with concerted efforts to resolve long-standing societal inequalities globally. Reliable collaborative evidence must underpin clinical, public health, and societal interventions by policy makers that address these injustices and tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and its sequelae.”

    Once again many thanks to Dr Winston Morgan for such a important and timely piece.

Leave a Reply