This article is more than 4 years old

Why is history in the UK so white?

Jonathan Saha introduces a Royal Historical Society report into race, ethnicity, and equality in the UK academic discipline of history.
This article is more than 4 years old

Jonathan Saha is Co-Chair of the Royal Historical Society working group that produced the Race, Ethnicity and Equality report. He is an associate lecturer at the University of Leeds.

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.

Workplace racism

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.

Curriculum diversity

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.

Effecting change

“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.

7 responses to “Why is history in the UK so white?

  1. Is the real question here whether History is entering a decline? The report demonstrates that ethnic minoritiy (BAME) students, for example, are much more likely to want to enter careers in business, medicine, dentistry, and law than non-BAME. Students’ GCSE, A-level, and degree choices reflect this. A-level entries for History peaked at 50,000 in 2015 and have since fallen. Over the decade 2010-20, about 300,000 young people will be added to the UK’s 18-19 year old demographic with the increase disproportionately being concentrated among ethnic minority young people whose share of the population will rise. While it is understandable that the Royal Historical Society wants to ensure that the subject is relevant and attractive to as many of these students as possible, it may in fact be inevitable that History will cede ground to other disciplines. After all, why should we expect that a changing population wants to study the in the same way as past populations?

    For sure, the curriculum of any subject needs to be refreshed. Likewise, incidents of harassment identified in the report ought to be taken very seriously. But the overall message is that History may have to accept that it is going to be relatively less significant than formerly because the times they are a changing.

  2. Hmmm Anyone who has even glanced at a history curriculum at a modern university and concluded it is ‘too narrowly focused on Britain’s island history’ has a weird sense of perspective. Sure, there will usually be or two compulsory modules on British History. But the rest (and majority) of the curriculum usually includes compulsory modules on European/World history, plus a ton of optional modules in which British options are just a few possible areas of study out of many.

    As for reading lists, authors should purely be included on merit. And hopefully this will mean that if there is any racial bias in reading lists, this will be addressed. It is a rather patronising assumption that BME students need BME authors on the readin list in order to engage with the text.

  3. For me it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ question. The humanities are often disparaged as being less socially valuable, which has two outcomes – squeezed funding (with less spare for diversity initiatives), and less interest in their being representative (because their utility is undervalued). Hence widespread attention to representativeness by funders in STEM, and little resource or attention by humanities and social science funders. And yet the products of humanities scholarship are widely consumed and thus immensely powerful.

    1. The simple answer to this is that historically Britain is a white territory. It is also natural that the study of history in the UK would focus on the history of the UK as this is more relevant. This is common sense. Whatever country you are in, it tends to be more useful to know some of the history relevant to that country and that tends to be the history of that country.

      However, in Britain the subject of history does not strictly restrict itself to the UK. No other territory is off limits. There are history books on the history of many other places. There are also classes that teach foreign history. It just tends to be slightly more niche.

      It does not make sense to say that if 10% of the population is not white then people who are not white should also make up the same percent of senior roles. Due to random effects alone that is effectively impossible to exactly match.

      The non white population in the UK tends to be very young with many recent arrivals. A disproportionate amount of that population consists of either children or adults coming from a country with a lower standard of education than the UK. It does not make sense to expect to see them immediately occupy senior roles to match their proportion in the general population.

  4. Very good comment – the issues discussed in the original piece mostly reflect long term trends grounded in pre-University education.

    On point of the curriculum being refreshed, I would encourage you to actually take a look at any history curriculum at a modern university, and you’ll see it is already extremely diverse, and the campaigners for even more diversity are a minority among not only students as a whole but BME students as well. Completely unrepresentative and rely on straw men.

  5. Excellent report and article Jonathan, which I know is based on substantial qual and quant research from FE students, uni students, and academic staff across the discipline, and has listened to the voices and experiences of a range of historians.

    I hope other commentators will take further time to reflect, pause and listen.

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