Bethany Morris

As the murder of George Floyd propelled the conversation on racial prejudice to the forefront of societal discourse, many have begun to turn their attentions to the systematic racism that exists beyond the US.

Here in the UK, racial discrimination has intercepted many aspects of life, from the education system and workplaces to healthcare and the criminal justice system.

As these biases continue to put black citizens up against great disadvantage, it is feared that the Covid-19 pandemic and the UK’s immigration system will exacerbate this inequality, particularly in the field of academics.

Black academic staff face double whammy in promotion and pay stakes

Black academics, lecturers and even students face stark disadvantages compared to their white counterparts in education. Research by the University and College Union discovered that BME staff at UK universities faced a pay gap of 9%, and black staff a gap of a staggering 14%, when compared with their white colleagues. Black academic staff are also vastly underrepresented in UK higher education, with the UCU research discovering that 84% of higher education staff and 93% of university staff were white.

The underrepresentation of black academics in the UK also has a knock-on affect on black students; Amatey Doku, a former NUS vice president, was “struck by the number of students who said that the lack of diversity in staff was the most important issue affecting their BME student experience”. In addition to the pay gap that exists between black and white academics, according to University and College Union research, black academics are also less likely to hold top jobs in education.

As the damning underrepresentation of black academics in UK academia continues to be exposed, biases within UK immigration law threaten to widen the gap further. The history of UK Immigration policy is bleak and mired in racial division, even as far back as the The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 which was devised solely to discriminate against black and Asian citizens, as pointed out by Free Movement. Today this discrimination in UK policy continues; it was perhaps most apparent in Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ but it is also evident in current policy which continues to deny BME citizens of equal opportunity.

The ‘Lessons Not Learned’ report conducted by Freedom From Torture in 2019 discovered ‘historical and systemic failures of asylum decision-making in the UK’. Namely, it unearthed that asylum seekers faced unnecessary, lengthy, and often traumatic appeals processes and the Home Office’s default position of assuming that all applicants are lying puts asylum applicants, a huge proportion of which are BME, at significant disadvantage.

Discrimination trickles down into the academic field

Many immigration rules also continue to operate in a racially biased fashion, with many Visa categories still existing today that remain exclusively for white commonwealth citizens. Discrimination in the criminal justice system also perpetuates this racism, with BME people more likely to be stopped by the police, prosecuted, and face harsher sentencing. This level of discrimination also trickles down into the academic field as many black academics have been denied permanent UK visas.

African academics have been refused Visitor Visas to travel to the UK and share their expertise whilst many have been refused visas due to taking field trips abroad (many of which have been taken strictly for research purposes). Yet now, as of the 2021 immigration rules, EU academics will be forced to comply with visa rules and regulations too. Even if they qualify and gather enough points for the Skilled Workers Visa, the surrounding immigration costs could deter them from the opportunity altogether – especially considering the rest of the continent remains open for business and, crucially, free of charge to teach there.

UK universities rely largely on revenue generated from international students, however, the Coronavirus crisis has been a serious impediment to the rate of international recruitment. In addition to this, UK universities are also struggling to attract EU students, with a survey of more than 2,500 EU students revealing that 84% could be deterred from studying in the UK due to a loss of home fee status. Because of Brexit, EU students will also have to pay higher fees to study here.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think tank stated that:

“In the past, we have shown that higher fees and no more access to student loans could risk a decline of around 60% in the number of EU students coming to the UK to study.”

The UK’s Tier 4 Student Visa is also widening the academic gap by excluding India from being streamlined through the application process, putting the educational prospects of thousands of students at risk.

‘Decolonising’ the UK curriculum

Since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 erupted in America, many have called for the ‘decolonisation’ of the UK curriculum. In UK education, black history is rarely taught separate from a euro-centric perspective, with most content taught in segments such as ‘black history month’ rather than being firmly embedded in the curriculum. Interest in creating a more diverse and inclusive curriculum for students has ballooned since March, with students, parents and teachers showing a greater interest in downloading inclusive resources and more than ever are engaging with educational platforms that encourage the teachings of black history in schools.

Although moves to make the UK curriculum more inclusive are welcome, and frankly long overdue, it’s clear that meaningful change must come from much deeper within the system. Indeed, if UK universities and academic institutions are to overcome its racial imbalance, it must be able to hire the talent it needs from wherever that talent may be.

Diversity and representation in academia is imperative if we are to ensure that BME students, parents and teachers feel a sense of belonging in the UK’s education system. To ensure meaningful change is implemented, the bigger picture must be examined by assessing the accessibility and functionality of the immigration system, as well as the inner workings of higher and further education institutions to ensure that BME students and teachers can access the same opportunities, and gain the same recognition, as their white peers.

Bethany Morris, writer for the IAS; a law firm that specialises in Brexit and British nationality immigration law

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