Race and postgraduate study: a journey into the unknown

Written by Akile Ahmet. Posted in News

I began my academic journey in 2000 as an undergraduate student at an elite Russell Group university. I was lucky enough to have a great journey through my undergraduate years. However once I decided to carry on and complete a postgraduate degree I began to feel ‘out of place’. As I began my PhD I felt further and further isolated as the only ethnic minority student doing a PhD in the Geography department, and certainly the only person in my department at the time exploring the issues of race and ethnicity. In this post I discuss my own position within the wider context of race in academia.

Race and progression to postgraduate study

On 10 November I attended a symposium at the University of Greenwich entitled ‘Telling it like it is: Reflecting on the experience of Black and minority ethnic students in higher education’. This event is part of a series of four symposia. It evidenced that the vital issue of race and belonging within higher education must be addressed. According to Pam Tatlow and data from UCAS, from the year 2000, 16% of undergraduate students identified as being from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds as opposed to 9 per cent of the working population. In London and other conurbations, the significant increases in higher education participation are largely explained by the aspirations and ambitions of Black and minority ethnic students and their families which tend to be more strongly oriented to education and the professions than those of their white counterparts.

However, there are still limited numbers of Black and minority ethnic students entering postgraduate education. According to research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which explored trends in transition to taught and research postgraduate programmes, transitions to taught Masters programmes vary. The rate for Chinese students was consistently the highest (11.7 per cent in 2010-11) while that for Black Caribbean students was consistently the lowest (and consistently lower than White students, 3.9 per cent in 2010-11). For PG research transition, however, there was less consistency over time.  In 2010-11, for example, Bangladeshi students had the lowest transition (just 0.1 per cent).

 My own postgraduate journey

From a personal perspective I would argue that without a significant number of Black professors within the academy it makes it difficult for Black and minority ethnic students who may be considering a career in academia to look around and say – “that person is like me”, or “that person has similar research interests to me”. In the remainder of this blog post I want to explore the role of race in the academy from my perspective as a minority ethnic female contract researcher.

My PhD experience was a journey of identity construction. I had no role models although I had an okay relationship with my supervisor. Whilst on my PhD journey, I therefore sought my own contacts and people who I thought would be able to support my research. One of the main supporters of my research was Minelle Mahtani, a Canadian academic. She helped me through my Viva and actually understood my positionality in the academy. At several points through my PhD I considered giving up but I had a genuine passion for the research I was doing about mixed race identity. I think the primary reasons for this were the lack of academic staff ‘like me’ and the wider lack of recognition of the role of race in the academy.

People from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds are under represented both at postgraduate level and among academic staff. Recently, in The Times Higher Education  a report showed that ethnic minority staff in UK universities are, like me, concentrated in less senior roles and often find themselves on fixed term contracts.  According to recent Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data in 2012/13 (HESA, 2014)  out of a total of 17,880 professors, only 85 were Black (less than 1%, and only 16 of these were women), 950 were Asian (5%), 365 were ‘other’ (including mixed) and the overwhelming majority (15,200) were White (85%).

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with one of the few Black female professors – Professor Claudia Bernard. In the final year of my PhD I applied for a research assistant post at Goldsmiths, University Of London working with some great female academics from diverse backgrounds. These women are inspirational and fantastic academics who taught me to speak out as a woman from a minority background and carry on doing what I love.

Insecurity is unfortunately endemic within the academic profession and this is more apparent for Black and ethnic minority staff. Research from the Equality Challenge Unit (2009) has found that on average Black and ethnic minority staff receive lower rates of pay and tend to be on fixed term contracts. Research by Kalwant Bhopal (2015) has found that, although there were cases of overt racism, it was more subtle forms that were most common . Examples of this include a lack of trust, close scrutiny by other staff and questioning of their credibility. It is important that we listen to the experience of black and ethnic minority students and academics like me and use our experiences. We need to make universities more inclusive spaces of belonging.

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Comments (1)

  • Claudia Bernard


    This is a powerful reflective piece. It is so important that we make visible our stories about our journeys in academia.


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