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Diversity troubles – comprehensive solutions to HE’s racial segregation

Sol Gamsu and Michael Donnelly examine the geography of ethnicity and higher education in the UK and argue that a comprehensive university system may hold some of the answers.
This article is more than 4 years old

Sol Gamsu is a researcher at the University of Bath working on the unequal geographies of access to higher education.

Michael Donnelly is a Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Bath.

In our report last week we highlighted disturbing figures showing significant levels of ethnic segregation between universities and particular academic subjects.

Unsurprisingly we found that the most ethnically diverse universities are primarily ‘newer’ post-1992 universities located in major English cities. This included looking at how students from ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tended to attend more diverse institutions, with the opposite being true for students growing up in predominantly white areas. Beyond this there are more alarming statistics about the low number of Black Caribbean students on medicine and dentistry degrees, as well as how elite arts institutions and veterinary science courses continue to be white-dominated.

These inequalities are underpinned by a whole host of educational and social factors. Attainment clearly limits the scope of choices, as does the completely legitimate and understandable desire to study close to home, surrounded by students from relatively similar backgrounds who will not make you feel out of place. Whatever their background, most students will opt to study locally rather than leave home. And why shouldn’t they? There is nothing essentially wrong about studying locally, and whilst the geography of race and ethnicity in the UK will change slowly and gradually, it would be wrong to expect students to move away from the large cities simply to fulfil some governmental requirement of diversity.

That is not to say that universities should not do more to create inclusive learning environments on campus, or that they should not diversify their staff recruitment so that universities begin to reflect the reality of 21st century Britain. Student politics has over recent years seen a resurgence in issues of race in higher education. These have included demands for the removal of statues of wealthy imperialist philanthropist Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, campaigns such as those at SOAS, to open-up university curricula to theory and research from the Global South and by scholars of colour.

The attainment gap and racist comments by other students have also been the subject of student anger and publicity at campuses in Oxford, Cambridge and King’s College London amongst others. All of these issues provide a broader context within which issues of race and Britain’s imperial past continue to haunt the terrain of higher education policy in ways which will not go away any time soon.

Closer to home

Away from the largely elite universities where these debates have drawn major media attention, the super-diverse universities of London, the Midlands and the former milltowns of northern England remain the universities where the majority of students of colour will go to university. If we go back to first principles, there is nothing essentially insular about working-class British Pakistani or Bangladeshi students from West Yorkshire choosing to study in Bradford or UCLAN, or those in East London opting for UEL or Queen Mary.

But would it not be truer to say that the multiple generations of white upper-middle class students who tread the well-beaten path from London and south-eastern private schools into Oxbridge, Durham, Bristol, Edinburgh and a few other places are also intrinsically insulated and insular? And yet, it is not their spatial trajectories into university that are defined as ‘limited’, their horizons and futures ‘restricted’. This is despite that they will rarely leave the geographical bubbles of economic success and elite white culture which pepper the UK like an archipelago, primarily in the south-east of England.

Efforts to widen HE participation, despite their many successes, have not addressed the continued structural inequality between universities. There are enormous inequalities in the concentration of research funding and the levels of philanthropy universities are able to attract. Elite graduate recruiters continue to target a select number of older universities, passing by the more ethnically diverse post-1992 universities in large cities.

The comprehensive university

One recent response has been the growing calls for a comprehensive university system which would challenge these hierarchies, made by figures such as Tim Blackman and Selina Todd, and drawing on the earlier work of Robin Pedley. Pedley envisioned a complete overhaul of post-16 and higher education with all institutions over a particular area coordinated by a democratically elected council with greater control by students, higher education workers and local communities. Greater fluidity and movement between different types of institutions would also be permitted. The post-16 curriculum would be reformed, away from the demands of older, elite universities and the private school system.

We cannot resolve ethnic inequalities in accessing different universities and different degrees without reforming the university system as a whole. We cannot turn Bradford University into Oxford, and we should also question whether we really want to make Oxford and Cambridge our model for all higher education. The concentration of knowledge, learning and research is one thing; the concentration of elitism, snobbery and the legacy of imperialism and racism is quite another. Having Oxbridge as our symbolic model for what an education ought to mean has not brought us a happy or egalitarian education system. Moreover, it has done very little for racial justice, despite the slow but persistent improvements in numbers of students of colour attending these elite universities.

Widening participation was intended to ‘diversify’ recruitment into higher education, but it was never harnessed to a wider programme of structural reform which would actually allow inequalities of race and class to be dismantled. It was not meant to allow the majority of students of colour, who face multiple disadvantages long before university, to access elite institutions. The old selective logic of the eleven plus in the British education system which raises up a gifted few has effectively been re-created for the 21st century, but with race as – well as class – a defining feature. This structural disadvantage – with working-class students of colour at the bottom – requires structural and transformational reform.

Comprehensive universities with greater democracy and even distribution of resources, would re-balance the education system towards the needs of working-class students of colour. They would also provide a space in which the hybrid, mongrel culture of the UK in the 21st century can be explored and created without the inequalities of race and class that divide our universities and society as a whole.

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