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Recognising British colonialism and advancing the Academy

14 Oct 2019 | Amatey Doku Advance HE is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting black academic action, experience and success. Amatey Doku, Advance HE Board member, explores how the legacy of British colonialism impacts higher education today and how interventions to tackle inequalities must be mindful of that difficult past.

British society is yet to fully confront its colonial past, and UK universities are no exception. Consequently, not enough light has been shed on the fact that universities and academia played an important role, alongside other instruments of state, in the justification for and maintenance of the British empire. The inequalities faced by black people in the Academy and in society as a whole is a stark reminder of this continued legacy.  

Whilst there is consensus in the sociological community that race is a social construct dividing people based on arbitrary characteristics, there are different views about when the concept came into being. Some point to the Enlightenment and Age of Reason in which the categorisation of nature was extended to human beings, placing people in “natural” hierarchies. Kant, for example, writing in “On the Different Races of Man” in 1775, theorises that four distinct races, included the “white race” and “the negro race” existed in nature.

Other sociologists, however, argue that racial categorisation was antithetical to the Enlightenment philosophy, which was characterised by the unity of humanity and the ‘equality of Man’. They argue that it was in the 19th century Romantic era that followed where a new racial science was developed, and race was recast by scholars to justify western colonial interests. Anthropologists such as Dr James Hunt, the President of the Anthropological Society of London argued that ‘the negro’ was intellectually inferior to the European, could only be civilised by Europeans and was ‘naturally’ suited to subordination. Regardless of the precise timeframes, it’s clear that western scholars in academic institutions across Europe provided budding empires with the conceptual tools they needed to justify colonising large parts of the world.

It’s easy to argue that universities and academia are different today and it is certainly true that many providers in the sector emerged a considerable time after this period. However, many academics and activists, particularly those involved in campaigns to decolonise the curriculum, have pointed out that the legacy from that period still has an impact on the Academy today.

Structural inequalities persist right throughout the Academy, limiting the chances and opportunities for black students, black staff and black scholarship in general a clear hangover from a time when white European scholarship was explicitly viewed as superior to all else. While external factors play their role, a significant body of evidence shows that the Academy reinforces rather than works against the wider structural inequalities.

Whilst the number of black students going to university has increased, this change in demographics for universities has not been reflected proportionately in the change in the curriculum or pedagogical practices. Curricula remain Eurocentric, meaning that many non-white students don’t see themselves reflected in their teaching and can find it hard to relate to the content. The uncritical positioning of ‘founding fathers’ of certain disciplines can further add to that alienation for students as no one who looks like them is given the reverence afforded primarily to dead white men.

As the colonial history above implies, black scholarship has been marginalised throughout the history of universities and has a long way to go to be viewed on an equal footing. This has meant that the staff in UK universities do not reflect the growing diversity of the student body. The fact that only 0.6% of professors are black and less than 30 are black women, shows how far the dial is skewed against the progression of black academics and, in particular, black women.  

This is further demonstrated in statistics relating to attainment for black students. A recent report into the attainment gap by Universities UK and the National Union of Students found that whilst 81% of white students were graduating with a 2:1 or first, this dropped to just 56% for black students. A significant contributing factor was the feeling of a lack of a sense of belonging whilst at university. Modern universities may claim no explicit linear relationship with the British empire, the higher education ecosystem within which they exist means that every institution is still implicated.

Even in institutions where the majority of students are not white, attainment gaps for black students still persist.  

It may seem like an unsurmountable task for universities to break down all the barriers for black staff and students, given that, in the not too distant past these very sites were providing the ‘scientific’ basis to subjugate their ancestors. But there are some practical steps that could make a real difference.

Firstly, universities must acknowledge this past, directly confronting these difficult conversations. Much like the rest of British society, universities have not had a mature conversation about colonialism which only yields a partial understanding of why structural inequality for black people exists today.  Secondly, the interventions need to be centred on the current lived experienced of those affected.

To fully understand exactly the steps that need to be taken to break down current barriers, universities must not only be willing to listen to the lived experiences of their black students and staff but also prepared to hear the uncomfortable truths.

Finally, universities must be clear that the burden to act and drive change lies with them, not the black students and staff. I’ve written about this elsewhere but it is vital that black staff and students don’t face even greater disadvantage by being required to find the solutions to tackle their own disadvantage.

No silver bullet will undo years of structural disadvantage but these three steps alone, if supported by strong institutional leadership, will start to make a huge difference to the lives of black students and staff studying in institutions which have historically not been places for them. Some universities have already made strong steps in this direction, with a number of the older ones starting investigations into their institutions’ past relationship with the slave trade. If the sector seizes the initiative now, it can begin to lead the conversation in society more broadly and help the UK reconcile difficult aspects of its history.


Amatey Doku is a member of the Advance HE Board. He was formally Deputy President of the National Union of Students and focused much of his time in that role on tackling structural inequalities affecting students at university such as the BAME attainment gap.


Advance HE's EDI Conference 2020 ‘Courageous conversations and adventurous approaches: Creative thinking in tackling inequality' call for papers is open. The call for submissions deadline is midnight on 13 November 2019. Find out more

During 2019-20 we will be running a series of workshops focused on equality, diversity and inclusivity topics to support practitioners, managers and leaders within HE institutions across the UK. Find out more and book now

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