Author: Patricia Gilbert, PhD Researcher – University of Portsmouth

Patricia Gilbert started as a PhD Researcher at the University of Portsmouth in October 2017.  Her PhD research will investigate the factors that have contributed to the success of students from BME and lower socio-economic groups at the University of Portsmouth, with a focus on the role of personal tutoring. 

I have been fortunate that during the first few months of my PhD study at the University of Portsmouth, I have had the opportunity to attend some very interesting events, including:  a launch of “Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British Academia”; a conference on “Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education”, at which I presented on my research topic; and a “Radical Pedagogies in the Humanities” Forum.  I am also very pleased to have this opportunity to share with colleagues some reflections on these events and a related question that has occupied me since the start of my investigation into differential outcomes in student attainment: is there a connection between the “BME attainment gap” and the under-representation of Black staff in the academy?

I am in the early days of my research, which will contribute to the Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration (RARA) project.  RARA is implementing personal tutoring projects in pilot faculties at three universities – the University of Sheffield, King’s College London and the University of Portsmouth – which aim to address attainment gaps via the provision of high quality academic support.  I will be undertaking a related study which will include qualitative research with students from BME and lower socio-economic backgrounds across the University of Portsmouth.  As a lecturer and tutor who has worked with students in adult, further and higher education, including on access to higher education programmes, I bring to my study an understanding of the diversity of the student body and the challenging nature of student support needs.  It is clear that the issue of differential student outcomes is multi-faceted and complex.  As Dr Gurnam Singh suggests in Vikki Hill’s excellent interviews, recognising the “complex interplay of institutional processes” and “the psychosocial domain of the student” is vital for understanding attainment gaps and how to reverse them (Singh, 2017).  At Portsmouth, these processes are currently being addressed by the interventions of both the Mindsets and RARA projects, and it is fantastic to join so many academic staff and project leaders committed to initiatives aiming to remove barriers to student success.

I have also participated in undergraduate discussion groups led by the Portsmouth Students’ Union who are actively campaigning on the issue of the BME attainment gap: currently reported as a 15.6 percentage points difference between BME students and white students attaining 1st class and 2:1 degrees classifications in England in 2015/16, and a 25.7 percentage point difference between the attainment of white and black students (ECU 2017a).  The students highlighted the potential impact of mentors and role models in supporting BME student achievement. This raises the question of what sort of impact does it have on BME students to see relatively few BME academic staff teaching and leading their courses?  A baseline study of BME staff in higher education published in 2009 found that over a quarter of UK students at the Million+ group of universities were from a minority ethnic background, compared with 6.9% of staff (Leathwood et al, 2009). The most recent statistics from Higher Education Statistics Association (HESA, 2018) show an increased representation of BME academic staff across the sector at 15.1%; however, they also report that there are only 80 Black (Black Caribbean, Black African and Black Other) UK professors and only 5 Black academics in the top category of ‘managers, directors and senior officials’. The Equality Challenge Unit report that in 2015/16, 23.9% of professors were female, and of these only 0.5% were Black (ECU, 2017b).

The University College London (UCL) panel discussion held in 2014, entitled “Why isn’t my professor Black?” highlighted a growing questioning of these disparities and has been “widely seen to have been the catalyst for anti-racist student campaigns and student calls to decolonize the university in the UK” (Tate and Bagguley, 2017).  One commentator has compared attitudes to discrimination based on gender and that based on race and ethnicity, suggesting that “divergent responses to sexism and racism in modern society” have meant that “it has been far more difficult to gain acceptance that racism or even unconscious bias exists in academia” (Morgan, 2016). Nevertheless, research into the experiences of black and ethnic minority academic staff has shown patterns of differential treatment that can include discrimination, isolation, excessive scrutiny of work, negative assumptions, questioning of ability, marginalisation, heavy workloads, work designated as low status and lack of representation at senior levels (Leathwood et al, 2009; Hey et al, 2011; Bhopal and Jackson, 2013).

The experiences of BME academics were discussed at the launch of “Inside the Ivory Tower” (Gabriel and Tate, 2017), at the University of East London in January, where some of the contributors to the publication shared their experiences as “women of colour” in British academia.  This accomplished group, situated within a variety of disciplines and ranging from lecturers to professors, have provided personal accounts of academic life that is shaped by race and gender, from day-to-day “micro-aggressions” to overt racism and sexism.  However, the overall impact of the event was to inspire others, especially BME women, to “thrive” in the academy and to promote “discursive activism” to ensure that this is possible.  An intersectional approach also underpinned the ““Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education” event at Birkbeck College, University of London in January, which utilised the concept of “womanism”, a black feminist approach that centres the agency of black women in navigating the intersections of race, class and gender. The event particularly focused on the connections between academic work and community activism (Etienne, 2016), discussing topics such as Black youth and criminalisation and the marginalisation of Black British Muslim women.  After my presentation on the BME attainment gap, a workshop participant noted the importance of recognising the strengths that minority ethnic students can bring in the form of “ethnic capital”.  This highlighted for me the importance of recognising the educational successes of “socially marginalised groups” and the range of “cultural wealth” that can be a source of empowerment (Yosso, 2005; Shah et al, 2010).

The Radical Pedagogies Forum held at the University of Kent in January aimed to bring educators in the Humanities together to “critically reflect on current practice, and propose innovative and experimental new approaches to teaching in the 21st century”.  Radical or critical pedagogy is often associated with teaching which aims to both understand and transform educational and social inequalities, and through critical dialogue “ counter the traditional ‘banking concept’ of education (Dardar et al, 2009, p. 24). The Forum included an informative and challenging session, led by PhD researcher, Dave Thomas: “Critical Race Theory: A framework for liberating learning, teaching, assessment and the curriculum in higher education”.  Thomas outlined how a Critical Race Theory approach could examine processes of racialisation and disadvantage at macro, meso and micro levels, from socio-historical and cultural structures, to the social context where student outcomes are produced, to the day-to-day interactions between students and staff (Thomas, 2017).  A case study exercise on engaging students prompted discussion on diversifying the curriculum or raising awareness of its limitations, utilising narratives as a pedagogical tool, discussing stereotypes and promoting attainment via micro-affirmations.

Andrews (2015) suggests that “British higher education is an overwhelmingly White space, both physically and theoretically”.  The events discussed above have in various ways sought to counter this reality.  Maylor (2010) has argued that greater representation of BME staff in the academy is a vital step in “raising the aspirations of BME students and enhancing their self belief”.  In turn, Maylor argues that improving BME student attainment, and addressing negative higher education experiences, is necessary to increase the pool of potential doctoral students, researchers and lecturers and ensure favourable competition in the academic labour market.

However, there have been plenty of changes since I was an undergraduate in the late 80s. The teaching staff on all of the modules I undertook for my Humanities degree were white and male, even the lecturer on the Politics of Feminism module!  Although there was some excellent teaching on that course, it was my later experience of working with ethnically diverse colleagues while training to teach, and particularly on courses led by women with critical pedagogic approaches, that had the biggest impact on my confidence and attainment, and my ability to see myself as a person that could ‘belong’ in the academy. I hope that the ongoing work on student achievement will consider the “BME staff gap” along with the attainment gap, and I look forward to hearing the views of others on this topic as I carry out my research.


Raising Awareness, Raising Aspiration (RARA)

Inside the Ivory Tower Project (Black British Academics)

Critical Race Theory (BERA resource)


Andrews, K. 2015. ‘The Black Studies Movement in Britain: Addressing the Crisis in British Academia and Social Life’. Aiming higher: Race, inequality and diversity in the Academy. London: Runnymede .

Bhopal, K. and Jackson, J. 2013. The experiences of black and minority ethnic academics: multiple identities and career progression. University of Southampton. Available at:

Darder, A, et al (eds). 2009. The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd edition). Abingdon: Routledge.

ECU (2017a). Equality in higher education: student statistical report. London: Equality Challenge Unit.

ECU (2017b). Equality in higher education: staff statistical report. London: Equality Challenge Unit.

Etienne, J. 2016. Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of first-generation African Caribbean women. London: IOE Press.

Gabriel, D. And Tate. S. 2017. Inside the Ivory tower: Narratives of women of colour surviving and thriving in British academia. London: IOE Press.

HESA. 2018. Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2016/17. Higher Education Statistics Agency. Available at:

Hey, V. Et al. 2011. The experience of black and minority ethnic staff in higher education in England. The Equality Challenge Unit, London.

Leathwood, C, Maylor, U and Moreau,M. 2009. Experiences of black and minority ethnic staff working in higher education: literature review. The Equality Challenge Unit, London.

Maylor, U. (2010). Widening participation: A worthwhile strategy? In Weekes-Bernard. D. (ed) Widening participation and race equality, Runnymede Perspectives Series, London: Runnymede.

Morgan, W. 2016. Why is my professor still not black? Winston Morgan explores what his career might reveal about the position of ethnic minority academics Times Higher Education. 14 March.

Singh. G. 2017. Interview in: From Attainment Gap to Awarding Gap – Vikki Hill in conversation with Dr Gurnam Singh. Changing Mindsets Blog.  Available at:

Shah, B., Dwyer, C., & Modood, T. 2010. Explaining Educational Achievement and Career Aspirations among Young British Pakistanis: Mobilizing ‘Ethnic Capital’?. Sociology, 44(6), 1109. doi:10.1177/0038038510381606.

Tate, S. and Bagguley, P. 2017. ‘Building the anti-racist university: next steps’. Race Ethnicity and Education. 20:3, 289-299. DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2016.1260227.

Thomas, D. 2017. ‘Critical Race Theory: A framework for liberating learning, teaching, assessment and the curriculum in higher education’. Workshop presentation at:  Radical Pedagogies: A Humanities Teaching Forum, University of Kent. 11-12 January.

Yosso, T. 2005. ‘Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth’. Race Ethnicity and Education. Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2005, pp. 69–91 DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341006

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

Black Academics and the Attainment Gap – Some Reflections

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