There is a fairly clear consensus in higher education that we have a lot of work to do to tackle racial inequality. Students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups (a controversial classification in its own right) have poorer experiences at university than White students. Numbers of Black academics are startlingly low. Hate crimes are still taking place on campus, with a recent report from Universities UK highlighting that not enough work has taken place to tackle racial harassment since it last reported in 2016. The Black attainment gap (which has recently been better described as the ‘awarding gap’) sits at 23%. But while we have better quantitative information on how the experiences of Black students in higher education differ, it seems we still have limited understanding of why these differences exist and what changes we can make to address them.
Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change, the second book published by Stormzy’s publishing brand (the grime artist who has set up a scholarship programme to get more Black students into Cambridge), was written by two female Black recent Cambridge graduates about their experiences of higher education. Written largely as a guide for prospective students, it offers an illuminating take on how different aspects of higher education let down Black women. Although the authors were students at Cambridge, it offers insights from interviews with fourteen students at different institutions, demonstrating both the similarity and divergence of their experiences.
The book tackles a wide range of areas of higher education and I would recommend is read by all those trying to understand how to tackle race inequality at university. However, there were four areas that have particularly stayed with me as places we could be taking action:
- Don’t group all students together. All the students interviewed in the book were against the use of ‘BAME’ as it both groups together ethnicities whose experiences differ significantly and sets ‘every other race as deviant from whiteness’. Equally when we talk about the experiences of Black students, we should not assume there is one homogenous experience. Not all Black students think the same or have the same experience. Too often race is equated with class and Black is assumed to mean working class. LGBTQ+ Black students will have unique experiences based on the intersection of race and sexuality.
- Understand the factors that come into Black students’ decision making. Students feeling that they’re going to have a more difficult time in the job market can dictate the subjects they study, which may explain why fewer Black students study English, History and creative arts. Students may also focus on picking universities depending on where there will be other Black students to avoid feeling isolated and find a more familiar culture. The authors examined HESA data which showed universities employ more black staff as cleaners, porters and receptionists than lecturers and professors, so if students are not represented in the student body, they are unlikely to be represented by the staff teaching them.
- Black female students face unique mental health challenges, with Black women more likely to have a ‘common mental health problem’ (29.3%) compared to white women (20.9%). While mental health is becoming a more widely spoken about on university campuses, the authors highlight how African and Caribbean communities deal tend to be less open about mental health. When Black students do seek support, they may prefer to see a Black counsellor, who is more likely to understand (rather than question) the role of the racism they have experienced, but the numbers of Black counsellors working in universities often make this impossible. Students are also aware of the low number of Black students at university and therefore feel they should be ‘grateful’ for been ‘given a chance’ – but what does this do for students who are struggling?
- The increasing focus on lack of black students at top universities can do more harm to those currently studying. When the media covers the issue, Black students are called upon the speak on behalf of their entire ethnic group and made to feel more aware of their rare status. As Amatey Doku (also referenced in the book for his work on the Benin Bronze repatriation campaign) highlighted in our recent report ‘The white elephant in the room’, BME students and staff are called upon to develop the solutions to attainment gaps. Black students feel invisible when left off the syllabus, but hypervisible when a topic in any way related to Black people comes up in a lecture. Should they wish to get involved in activism (which they often feel responsible to be), Black women are more likely to come under more media scrutiny. The authors cite the example of Lola Olufemi, the Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Officer, who was accused in the media of forcing Cambridge to ‘drop white authors’, when she joined over 100 others in calling for diversity in the curriculum.
Despite these challenges, the authors are keen to explain that university can offer an opportunity for young Black women. When all interviewees were asked ‘Was university worth it?’, the majority answered yes. The book is written as a guide to young black woman for how to survive university; however, the action must be taken by those of us who work in higher education, to improve the student experience for Black women in higher education.