How ASPIRE is changing the narratives for Black students

Ifedapo Francis Awolowo explains how a personalised mentoring scheme could be increasing Black students' participation in postgraduate study

Ifedapo Francis Awolowo is Senior Lecturer in Financial and Management Accounting at Sheffield Hallam University.

There are 23,000 professors in UK universities, but only 160 of them identify as Black.

Of these 160 Black professors, only 50 are women. Of the 164 Vice Chancellors in UK universities, only one is Black – Professor Charles Egbu of Leeds Trinity University.

With very few Black academics progressing to professorial rank despite the increasing number of Black academics, it is hard to argue that this is the result of anything other than structural racism.


The lack of Black academic staff at senior levels is discouraging for Black people considering a career in academia.

In the 2020/21 academic year, there were 15,345 full-time UK-domiciled PhD students in their first year of study, but just 4 per cent were Black.

To address this underrepresentation, the Accomplished Study Program in Research Excellence (ASPIRE), an Office for Students (OFS) funded project, aims to increase access and participation for Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the postgraduate research study.

Led by Sheffield Hallam University in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and Advance HE, the programme was designed by Black academics for Black students and centres on health and wellbeing. It uses compassionate conversations to address the needs and build the confidence of Black and Black heritage students interested in doctoral study.

The design is intentional. Many of the scholars who took part mentioned the importance of having a shared lived experience with their mentor and the novelty of working with a Black member of staff at the university.

I think because, well, with my mentor, having a Black mentor, again, I’m not used to working with any Black members of staff or, you know, at university and so on. So having someone who can really relate to me and understand me, you know, from that perspective, made all the difference. There was a lot of things that I knew she understood without me having to explain and unpick.

And it is reciprocal. It also develops the supervisory teams’ understanding of the subject of race, the importance of the Black experience, and their students’ experience of Blackness.

Shared experience was important to scholars and these experiences facilitated discussions about applying for a PhD. For example, a scholar shared that.

the last time she [the scholar’s mentor] called me she asked me if I was interested in a PhD and I told her I have my excuse to it, that for now it’s not something I want to consider and the reason being that I have three boys. Back home I’ve always been a working lady.

She [the scholar’s mentor] called me later and she told me that it [the PhD] will give me more time if I consider it an option that it would be nice if I do it, that it will give me more time for the kids, to have with them. (Scholar)

Over six months of weekly workshops, activities & synchronous and asynchronous classes, students and staff cover the five core pillars of ASPIRE:

  • Academic writing
  • Professional and personal development
  •  Employability
  • Research skills (quantitative and qualitative)
  • Project management

Changing the narrative

In the program’s first year (Cohort 1, 2022), 30 Black students were supported through personalised mentorships delivered by Black academics. At the end-of-year ASPIRE showcase event, scholars shared their ASPIRE journey through poetry, affirmation banners and other artefacts they created as part of the ASPIRE programme, demonstrating an expressed growth in confidence and self-belief and describing themselves as “tenacious, brave, courageous and resilient”.

This is a big step forward. The survey data collected at the start of the ASPIRE programme indicated that scholars lacked confidence and rated their skills as lesser than their peers (significantly lower than the control group).

By the end of the programme, all the scholars interviewed and/or surveyed scholars indicated that they were in the process of either applying for doctoral study or graduate employment.

Four scholars from the programme have already started their PhDs at Sheffield Hallam University and Manchester Metropolitan University. One scholar is due to begin her PhD at the University of Durham. Four of our scholars graduated as the overall best students in their PG programs. Two of our scholars started the MA programme this academic year, and one has now enrolled on a PGC in Chemistry at MMU.

Our ASPIRE model has indicated that personalised mentorship is critical for Black students’ equal opportunity. Seeing people who look like them, whom they can relate to, in the academy is key to achieving greatness. It has encouraged many of our scholars to consider a career in academia.

If there is to be an increase in the number of Black academics progressing to professorial rank and senior university leadership positions, then we need to encourage aspiring Black scholars to join academia and make a conscious effort to create enabling environments that facilitate the promotion of qualified Black academics to professorial rank.

3 responses to “How ASPIRE is changing the narratives for Black students

  1. The article says: “In the 2020/21 academic year, there were 15,345 full-time UK-domiciled PhD students in their first year of study, but just 4 per cent were Black. To address this underrepresentation …”

    According to the 2021 census, 4.0% of the total population of England and Wales is black.

    1. @bobby, the author of the article is making data reference to PhD students and you are also making data reference to census. It seems to me that you are trying to rubbish his data claim because to you it makes no sense but it does make sense. If not, then what were you trying to imply with your comment??

  2. The percentage of the population at the average age of a PhD student would be more than 4%

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