The past year was one of racial reckoning for universities, with the Black Lives Matter movement bringing its efforts to improve minority ethnic participation in postgraduate education into sharp focus. The proportion of BAME postgraduate research students (17.2%) is lower than the undergraduate proportion (24.7%), according to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
The key reason for this is the 23.4% attainment gap between white and black undergraduate students obtaining a first class or 2:1 degree needed for postgrad courses. There is also a financial barrier: just 1.2% of 19,868 PhD studentships went to black or black-mixed students between 2016/17 and 2018/19.
The 2016 introduction of master’s loans boosted uptake among BAME students, but Jason Arday, deputy executive dean for people and culture at Durham University, fears the pandemic could reverse the gains made, because of the rising cost of a master’s degree.
He says coronavirus disruption to courses could compound the BAME attainment gap, as many disadvantaged students have had less access to online resources and support through lockdown: “The digital divide could create a chasm in learning outcomes.” At the University of Oxford, there is a 14.7% gap between the proportion of BAME and white students obtaining a distinction on taught postgrad degrees.
Swathes of universities have pledged to tackle racial inequalities in response to the BLM movement, but many academics have lambasted this support as tokenistic and superficial.
“There has been a lot of noise, but what is needed is real change,” says Kalwant Bhopal, director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at University of Birmingham.
In September, Oxford launched the Black Academic Futures programme to provide up to 10 new scholarships to black British research students from next year, covering course fees and providing at least £15,285 for living costs. Black home students account for 1.5% of all postgrads at Oxford, compared with 4% across the country.
“The Black Lives Matter movement has been the impetus for us to do more to widen access,” says David Gavaghan, chair of Oxford’s graduate access working group. “There is a strong overlap between socioeconomic background and ethnicity.”
He says Oxford is also piloting “contextualised admissions” for several postgrad research degrees – in other words, taking the background of students into account when judging applications, thereby improving the chances of disadvantaged students securing a competitive place.
Victor Ajuwon, a zoology PhD candidate at Oxford, says that beyond attracting and admitting BAME students, universities also need to ensure they feel included when they arrive on campus. That’s why he helped to establish Oxford’s first Stem network for minority ethnic staff and postgrad students. It aims to raise the visibility of the few BAME researchers in this field and help them navigate challenges through solidarity.
“We need more people of colour doing PhDs to inspire others,” says Ajuwon. He is hopeful that representation will rise: “Black Lives Matter has focused attention on this issue. But we could always do more.”