Meghan Markle has reportedly backed a campaign led by black academics and students to tackle racism and discrimination in British universities.
It perfectly demonstrates why the campaign to promote greater diversity on UK campuses is so needed — and the Duchess of Sussex is already helping shine a light on the issue of diversity within education.
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She is known as an advocate for education and equality more widely around the world, particularly for women in developing countries.
“Everyone should be afforded the opportunity to receive the education they want, but more importantly the education they have the right to receive,” she said, on a visit to a university in Fiji in October. “And for women and girls in developing countries, this is vital. Providing them with access to education is the key to economic and social development.”
Markle has now, as of January, taken on the role of patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) — a role given to her by the Queen.
On a visit to London’s City University this month as a first outing of her new role, Markle was presented with a page of statistics highlighting the inequality among UK university professors, according to the Sunday Times, to which she responded: “Oh my goodness … isn’t that staggering.”
And these statistics are indeed staggering.
Just 2% of academic staff in Britain are black, according to the Advance HE report, published in September — and just 0.6% of UK professors were black.
There’s also reportedly a 16% pay gap between black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) and white staff working in senior management for academic and professional services — and while 80% of white students get a first or 2:1, just 56% of black students get the same.
The aim of the Advance HE report is to provide a snapshot of the age, disability, ethnicity, and gender of staff and students in higher education — and, according to the 2018 report, these statistics do worryingly represent an improvement on previous years.
The report noted “an increase in black and minority ethnic (BME) staff most pronounced among academics.”
“However, differences persist, with lower proportions of both UK and non-UK BME staff than white staff on open-ended/permanent contracts, in senior management positions, and on higher salary bands,” it reads.
“Of those with known ethnicity, 9.4% of UK staff identified as BME,” it adds. “However, this proportion varied by nation, ranging from 2.1% in Northern Ireland to 10.6% in England.”
The aim of the student and academic campaign is to “decolonise” how and what university students are taught in the UK, and to “confront the legacies of the empire” on campuses.
One example of this is the controversial campaign to have a statue of 19th century colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from the Oxford University campus in 2016. While this was ultimately unsuccessful, a similar movement in South Africa did see a Rhodes statue removed from the University of Cape Town.
Meanwhile, individual universities are also striving to make changes on campus to ensure that equality in education can be realised.
Baroness Amos, the director of SOAS, University of London, is currently reported to be writing guidelines on improving diversity in UK universities.
“When I was appointed director of SOAS University of London in 2015, I was astounded to discover that I was the first person of African-Caribbean descent to head a UK university,” she wrote, in an article for the Guardian in May last year.
“Ever since, I find myself frequently asked why there is such a lack of black, Asian, and minority ethnic representation in senior management in higher education,” she added.
“In Britain, we find it hard to talk about race and the impact that racism has on all of us,” Amos continues. “That’s because the conversation often immediately leaps into the territory of whether individuals are racist — and it degenerates from there. Socially and institutionally we find it hard to acknowledge the historical legacy and the insidious, invidious impact of racism because it quickly descends into a blame game.”
The UK government has also announced this month that the names of universities admitting the fewest black students will be published, naming and shaming them.
The ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic background of each university’s new student intake will be published by the Office for Students (OfS), according to the Telegraph, alongside students’ degree class.
The idea is to “shine a spotlight on those making good progress and those lagging behind,” according to the Department for Education.