erhaps one of the most harmful myths about British universities is that they are meritocratic and free from racism. Senior managers can no longer hide behind this false, “post-racial” narrative, which disingenuously implies that racism no longer exists. Perhaps the strongest evidence to challenge this empty rhetoric is the gross underrepresentation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) academics in senior positions.
I recently researched institutional racism in British universities by documenting the experiences of BAME academics. My findings exposed the major obstacles they encounter to promotions and career advancement. All my respondents spoke of the way in which racism manifested itself through “hidden white networks” that excluded them from various opportunities. One participant called this a “perpetuating machine” in which white colleagues “co-sign each other’s applications, share each other’s teaching content, and support one another”.
The BAME academics I spoke to felt unsupported and “blocked” in their careers. Some cited heads of departments who actively discouraged them from applying for promotions. There was a strong sense that they had to “overachieve” in comparison to their white counterparts just to be considered for promotion. As one respondent put it: “I learned you’ve got to excel to be in a position that a white person can just walk straight into.”
Furthermore, BAME academics often felt their work was dismissed as being of “marginal interest”, even when it had obtained international recognition. For example, one of my interviewees stated that the promotions committee regarded his achievements in scholarship on Africa as being “low in significance” because he had published in non-Western outlets and therefore “did not make a significant impact on British or American scholarship”.
The problem is compounded by the fact that decision-makers are almost always white senior colleagues, who bring with them a set of white cultural expectations that immediately shut out BAME academics.
Concerns were also voiced around recruitment strategies and “all-white” interview panels. One participant explained that despite his strong reputation in the department he remained on a rolling contract for four years, unable to obtain a permanent position. Conversely, his white colleague on a similar contract had more “institutional levers pulled” enabling them to secure a permanent job.
As my research shows, the challenges that BAME academics encounter when attempting to progress in our careers are all too evident. We are often seen as being “overconfident” if we apply for promotions, and “oversensitive” when we are rejected. We are presented with patronising management spiel claiming that negative outcomes are the result of the “prematurity” of the applicant, “bureaucratic” decisions, or “failure” to meet criteria (despite clear evidence of the contrary). In other words, white senior management will say anything except the real, underlying issue: their ingrained practices of racism.
To understand the root causes of the persistent position of disadvantage experienced by BAME academics, we need better dialogue around institutional racism and exclusionary forms of whiteness. The experiences documented in my findings show that such encounters cannot be simply cast off as “one-off” incidents.
My research shows that universities are a far cry away from the meritocratic spaces they claim to be. In order to improve this dire situation there are a number of practical steps that can be taken, but these have to be structural rather than cosmetic.
The most important change would be for universities to be held accountable for the underrepresentation of BAME staff at all levels. They should have a statutory duty to report annually on their plans to improve BAME representation, followed by a transparent and accessible audit of their recruitment, retention, and promotion practices. All recruitment and promotion panels must be explicitly committed to equal opportunities and include at least one BAME academic member of staff.
These are simple steps, but they have the potential to enable universities rise to the challenge of creating a fairer and more equal space for all. It’s time for British universities to tackle institutional racism head-on.
Written by: Dr Katy Sian