Increasing numbers of Black students attending UK universities

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Students in the library (photo: courtesy of Kampus Production)

Not all statistics relating to Black people in Britain are necessarily negative. Although it is often stated that there are disproportionate numbers of Black people in prisons, mental health institutions, and that they are also five or six times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their White counterparts, sometimes the positive statistics are overlooked or under reported. For example, the number of Black majority churches and some Black-based or -owned small businesses are growing and thriving in the UK. One institution which is still perceived to be the preserve and embodiment of the White establishment, with very little significant influence by Black people, is the UK university. This seems to be the case particularly in the red brick or Russell group universities. However, such claims can be contested as, in recent times, we have seen a significant increase in the number of Black and other minority ethnic groups attending universities. It is, therefore, interesting to consider whether this is the start of a trend, a one- or two-year anomaly, or some kind of reaction or response to the George Floyd killing and subsequent global protests against police brutality and injustice towards Black people in 2020.

According to a report in the Independent Newspaper, fewer than one per cent of postgraduate research students came from a Black British or Black Caribbean background in 2020/21. They opine that perhaps part of the problem relates to the paucity of Black British professors in the UK which, in their view, has stalled at just one per cent. In other words, just 160 out of 22,855 professors in 2020/21 were Black. This seems to suggest that where there are few Black people in senior positions in universities, few aspiring Black students will be attracted. Despite this somewhat gloomy perception, however, the number of Black students attending universities in recent years has actually increased.

Figures from the Independent Newspaper (February 2022) claim that in the academic year 2019/2020, just six per cent of students came from a Black African or Black British background, and just four per cent of post-graduate research students were from a Black African background, compared with three per cent the previous year. This, however, is only comparing one year with another. Data from the UK Government (Gov.UK, March 2022) covering the period 2006-2022, also indicates an upward trend in the number of Black students attending universities. Furthermore, they found that during this period, the percentage of Black 18-year-olds from state schools getting into universities had steadily increased from 2006 when it was 21.6 per cent to 48.6 per cent in 2022. The figures show a year-on-year increase during this period. This increase was probably influenced, in part, by increasing pressure from parents, community groups and some schools in motivating students from disadvantaged backgrounds to consider university options.

Another possible reason for the increasing numbers of Black people attending universities, especially after 2021, could be the government’s decision to cancel exams and base university entrance on teachers’ assessed grades because of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the disruption of ‘normal’ face-to-face teaching. The number of students achieving top grades from across the student population more than doubled in 2021. During this period, the number of students accepted into universities from disadvantaged backgrounds also significantly increased. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS) in the UK claimed that there was a 21 per cent increase in the number of students from such backgrounds gaining university entrance and was the largest increase ever recorded.  What these studies seem to demonstrate is that over the last fifteen years or so, increasing numbers of Black students have been attending universities and that the other recent factors such as the pandemic and increased awareness of Black identity politics globally, have probably played roles in boosting student numbers. Two issues to consider for the future are whether such trends will continue and also could this help to influence changes in the university curriculum to reflect subjects or issues with which many Black students are directly concerned about. Above all, however, at least this series of statistical data is generally positive.

Tony Talburt Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in Black Studies at. Birmingham City University in the UK

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