UK higher education providers have a poor record on race. Studies have identified several interlocking problems. Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) communities remain woefully underrepresented, particularly in senior roles.
BAME academic staff often face impediments to career progression and workplace racism is a frequent concern. The BAME undergraduate attainment gap exacerbates these problems. BAME students are on average around 9% less likely to achieve a first-class degree than white undergraduates.
By any measure, the overall picture is depressing. Yet even within this context, the discipline of history lags behind.
Today the Royal Historical Society (RHS) publishes Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK history: A Report and Resource for Change. This is not the first study to highlight the discipline’s lack of diversity; it was inspired by individuals and groups who have long worked to address these problems. Nevertheless, it represents the most comprehensive overview to date.
It draws on Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, as well as an extensive RHS survey, completed by 737 UK academic historians. The picture that emerges should provoke discussion and action. An academic discipline is only as healthy as the body of scholars that animate it. History in the UK is damaged by the overwhelming ethnic homogeneity of its practitioners.
Under-representation in history
History is markedly less diverse than most UK academic disciplines. According to data from Advance HE’s Equality Challenge Unit for 2017-18, 93.7% of historians are white. For the sector as whole, 85% of academic staff are white. Almost all BAME groups are underrepresented, but the proportion of black academics is especially low. Across the sector, only 1.5% of academic staff are black. In history the proportion is 0.5%.
These figures are significantly lower than the proportion of BAME students studying history and related subjects. At undergraduate level, BAME students represent 11% of students, which is nonetheless half the proportion across all disciplines (22.7%). The proportion of BAME taught postgraduate students is 9.3%, against an overall figure of 22%. This drops to 8.6% of research postgraduate students — again low for the sector as whole (16.8%).
In the 2011 UK census, BAME people represent around 14% of the population. This proportion is understood to have grown since 2011 and be considerably higher for younger age groups. These figures magnify the extent to which white people are over-represented in history.
The report traces these problems back to inequalities and choices at GCSE and A-level. But this is more than a pipeline issue. The gap of 8.6% between the proportions of white students (22.8%) and BAME students (14.2%) attaining first class undergraduate history degrees highlights barriers to attainment in the discipline that emerge once students arrive at university.
Given the importance of a first class degree in a student’s progression to and funding of postgraduate study, attainment gaps have damaging knock-on effects. Furthermore, according to HESA’s 2017 data on academic staff, history was the fifth least racially diverse subject. This problem cannot simply be explained by patterns of student choice and achievement. Other subjects face the same obstacles to diversity and manage to do better than history. Discipline specific problems produce an over-representation of white historians.
During 2017-18 there were several high-profile racist incidents against students across UK campuses. Some were serious enough for universities to expel students after disciplinary hearings. The findings of the survey found that racism is not confined to a minority of prejudiced students. It is part and parcel of university life for BAME staff. Nearly 19% of all the survey’s respondents reported witnessing racial abuse or discrimination; 29.8% of BAME respondents had directly experienced such discrimination or abuse.
Abuse and discrimination were most commonly initiated by university staff, most often in the respondent’s own department. After staff, students and the public initiated most incidents: 20.5% and 14.5% respectively. The survey’s qualitative evidence revealed examples of abuse and discrimination. The more overt examples included cases of bullying and the use of racist language. UK history departments are not diverse, nor are they inclusive places to work or study.
Challenging racist behaviours within universities relies upon staff who can mobilise relevant legislation and university policies. Many academic historians are ignorant of both. Over a third of respondents were unaware of the Equalities Act 2010 and of its provisions for persons with “protected characteristics”. Fewer than half of those aware of the Act had learnt of it through their higher education provider.
Only 15.4% of respondents had received any training on race-based harassment or bullying. Three quarters of BAME respondents who had used university policies to address incidents of discrimination were dissatisfied by these procedures. History staff are currently ill-equipped to stamp out prejudicial cultures in their departments, either through lack of knowledge of regulatory resources, or through a lack of faith in local processes.
Recent student movements asking “why is my curriculum white?” and demanding that higher education providers “decolonise” the curriculum have challenged the racial and cultural foundations of university teaching. These campaigns underline that the overrepresentation of white people in universities extends beyond staff and students. It is also manifest in reading lists and seminar topics. In focus groups that the RHS conducted with two groups of sixth-form students, this wider concern resonated with how these prospective undergraduates perceived university history programmes.
They thought the subject was remote from contemporary issues and narrowly focused on the “island story” of Britain. Academic historians need to address both this perception and the actual breadth of the curriculum. Significant change is in fact happening in universities. 86.3% of survey respondents reported that their department had expanded teaching coverage beyond Britain and Europe in recent years.
Curriculum reform is a standard part of universities’ quality assurance processes. The wider context of racial inequality in UK history means that this reform can also help make the discipline more inclusive. BAME attainment gap research has shown that a more inclusive curriculum can contribute to closing this disparity. This is not to accept the pernicious, but common, elision between the (assumed) heritage of individual BAME historians and their research interests. BAME respondents to the survey frequently noted that their white colleagues often expected BAME staff and students to study the cultures of “their” heritage. Such expectations are limiting and marginalising.
“Whig” history has long been debunked by critical historical scholarship. Things will not just get better with the passing of time. As historians, we know this. Concerted efforts are needed to address racial underrepresentation and discrimination in UK universities. The report offers recommendations for effecting change. These are intended for all staff, with particular advice for colleagues in positions of authority.
BAME staff, already isolated in departments, cannot be expected to be the sole agents of reform. The burden of making departments more diverse and inclusive must be shared across the higher education community.
The report’s recommendations are targeted and specific. They fall into four key areas.
- Meaningful, discipline-specific training to ensure dignity in the workplace is essential
- Improved, granular data on staff and student progression according to race and ethnicity must be identified and put to use
- Positive action (the lawful means through which employers can redress the underrepresentation of marginalised groups within their sector) needs to be better understood and used by higher education providers
- history curriculums in schools and universities need to challenge the racial foundations of the discipline so as to reflect the full diversity of human histories.
The whiteness of the discipline represents a threat to its intellectual vitality and relevance. There is no easy solution. But failing to undertake change will further entrench an exclusionary scholarly culture that overlooks talented historians because of their race.