Kaya is one of a worrying number of black higher-education students who have failed to make it to graduation day. A recent study found that 10.3% of black students quit university early in England, compared with 6.9% for the student population as a whole.
“I had so many racially-tinted, miserable experiences at my university,” says Kaya, who has asked the Guardian not to use her real name. “My male housemate used to say the ‘n-word’ in front of me, bragged about the fact he’d once racially abused a man in a club, and was so aggressive when I asked him to stop. Yet when I told my university counsellor, she said I couldn’t know for sure if my housemate was actually racist … that I needed to live and let live.”
Kaya completed just under two years of her sociology degree before quitting. “I felt as if I was going crazy in my own home, and the counsellor exacerbated that by not taking my distress seriously.”
The study, co-published by the University Partnerships Programme Foundation (UPP) and the Social Market Foundation (SMF), indicates that while there has been a measured effort to increase diversity quotas across UK higher-education institutions, less consideration has been given to the range of social, cultural and structural factors that make black students 1.5 times more likely to drop out of university than their white and Asian counterparts.
Heather, 23, says she dropped out of a business management degree at the University of Brighton despite achieving good grades because of factors relating to her race and mental health. “I found I was living with people I didn’t have anything in common with, and I also didn’t have the support network I had at home. Tutors didn’t seem to care about me; nobody asked where I was if I didn’t come to class. I felt like a lot of other students were cared about more than I was, and grew quite depressed.”
The expectations of her parents – a common theme among second and thirdgeneration BAME students – saw Heather stick it out longer at the university than she would have liked. “My parents wanted me to be the first person in our family to graduate. They worked extra hard, so I actually stayed at Brighton longer than I should have as I was worried what they would think.”
The University of Brighton declined to comment on Heather’s individual circumstances, but maintained it is “fully committed to providing an inclusive experience for all of our students. All our student services staff have received unconscious bias training, which we also recommend to all university staff … We also have a successful and well-established mentoring scheme in place specifically to support BAME students.”
The UPP/SMF study identifies a number of factors that can contribute to the greater likelihood of black students in particular dropping out early. These include feeling as if there is an implicit bias or preference towards white students; a lack of cultural connection to the curriculum; difficulties making relationships with academic staff or students from different backgrounds; and financial and mental health stressors.
Official statistics on how people are affected by overt racism or covert, racially motivated comments at university are hard to come by. But a 2016 survey of more than 600 black members by the University and College Union found insidious forms of racism to be commonplace. These higher-education professionals offered a number of recommendations to improve the situation, including “greater education about racism and its impact, effective sanctions against perpetrators of racism, [and] training for senior staff”.
When faced with diversity challenges or racial accusations against staff members, there can be an entrenched resistance from within academia – as identified in a 2015 report by equalities thinktank the Runnymede Trust, which concluded: “University institutions have proved remarkably resilient to change in terms of curriculum, culture and staffing, remaining for the most part ‘ivory towers’ − with the emphasis on ‘ivory’.”
Collective staff failings can exacerbate sensitive situations. In 2016, a first-year biomedical science student, Faramade Ifaturoti, reported finding the words “monkey” and “n***a” scrawled on bananas she was keeping in her shared kitchen at the University of Warwick. In a story that became known as Bananagate, the university was criticised for investigating the issue only after the hashtag #WeStandWithFara drew attention to the matter and led to national media coverage.
Lily, 22, dropped out of the London College of Fashion (part of the University of the Arts London) a year ago after feeling isolated by peers and staff when discussing cultural issues connected to her course. She describes an incident where she felt she had been “turned on” by white classmates for arguing that cultural appropriation in fashion was unacceptable. “When I brought this up with my teacher, she told me three members of staff were people of colour, so what I was saying wasn’t correct … She actually ended up suggesting I was racist. It was insane.”
According to Lily, “I don’t think the university is very supportive of people of colour at all.” In response, a UAL spokesperson told the Guardian: “At UAL, we are proud of our diverse student and staff body. Everyone’s identity matters, and we’re committed to ensuring we achieve equality, diversity and inclusion for our staff and students and have a set of objectives to help us do this, in line with the requirements set out by the Equality Act 2010.”
Challenging universities to change
Cases such as those referenced in this article are often said to be one-offs; examples of bad judgment rather than institutional racism. Similarly, last year the MP David Lammy was dismissed by some leading academics when he suggested the low admission rates of black students at Oxford University could be down to some level of unconscious bias in the admissions process. In October, however, it was revealed that nearly one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black student in 2015, and that just 1.5% of all Oxbridge offers went to black British students.
Cambridge University student Courtney Boateng’s Twitter thread went viral last year when she described repeatedly being told she was “lucky” to have earned her sociology degree place by other students and online peers, with many putting her presence down to quotas or bursaries – despite her A*AA grades at A-level. Others criticised her use of black British vernacular in casual conversation, citing it as apparent evidence that admissions standards were slipping.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2016, Britain’s first black studies professor, Kehinde Andrews, said he believed universities entrench racism rather than challenge it. “Are universities producing knowledge that challenges racism?” he asked. “I would argue they are not.”
Student bodies have sought to initiate change themselves over the past few years. From the “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” and “Why Is My Curriculum White?” movements that started at University College, London, to the #RhodesMustFall campaign at Oxford University, ethnic minority students are demanding exposure to a wider cross-section of non-European thinkers on their courses, and an improved historical awareness of the contexts in which the materials were created.
Understanding how and why race and ethnicity play a role in what the Social Market Foundation terms the higher education “completion gap” is as important for the UK’s economy as it is for reducing society’s ingrained structural inequalities. But while the SMF’s report calls for the government to create an “innovation challenge fund” to help improve retention of students from ethnic backgrounds, its recommendations for how the institutions themselves can help eradicate their own internal prejudices are less clear cut.
Of her 14 months at the University of Sussex, Kaya reflects: “I had gone to Sussex because of its progressive reputation. I was looking to find a place where I could feel safe and comfortable, but I really just did not find that. The environment was so white, the curriculum was so white … I really didn’t feel free there.”
When contacted, the University of Sussex refused to comment on Kaya’s individual circumstances, but stated that its student support staff all receive “training around hate crime”, and that Kaya’s counsellor would have been “BACP accredited … which means they have all met rigorous training standards and adhere to the very highest ethical standards.”
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Some names have been changed at the interviewees’ requests