Discourse around race relations and race related issues has been bubbling in the UK for years. People of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds have often highlighted ways in which they face bias and discrimination throughout the UK, to the point that they deem this experience to be systemic. Examples include black people highlighting racial bias in the criminal justice system – where they are more likely to be stopped by police, experience ‘racial profiling’ and be disproportionately sentenced for tedious crimes. The Windrush scandal exemplifies how the UK sees black Britons whose family originate from overseas; the Shamima Begum case shows how the UK Government can issue two tiers of British Citizenship – gold standard for white Britons but bronze for Britons with foreign heritage. And still, black people are twice as likely to die while in police custody (or from COVID-19) and black women are more likely to die in childbirth or face complications in their pregnancies that go unnoticed by healthcare professionals.
But it took the untimely death of George Floyd by a US police officer to ignite serious public conversations surrounding the treatment of minority groups in areas like healthcare, the criminal justice system and education in the UK.
Like in the United States, many people are seeking to face the UK’s legacy on race issues. One group seeking to make a change through the education system is the Black Curriculum campaign. Led by Lavinya Stennett, The Black Curriculum Campaign calls for a syllabus that further incorporates Black British history across subjects like politics, art history, and more. Among the public, there is some appetite for such a cause with over 260,000 people having signed a parliament petition to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum. Similarly, over 350,000 people signed a change.org petition to teach about the “realities of British Imperialism and Colonialism” in the national curriculum.
The calls come as it emerges the Home Office has “whitewashed” the UK curriculum in the last decade. In 2014, the Education Secretary at the time, Michael Gove, decided history should be taught to celebrate the distinguished role the UK has had in the history of the world. In doing so, he removed the curriculum’s focus on racial and ethnic diversity. A survey of 50,000 people provided some interesting data while exploring the history learned in school which shows that now, up to 11% of GCSE students study modules that refer to black people’s contribution to Britain and less than 1 in 10 studying modules that focus on the empire. To add insult to injury, when Africans and black people feature in GCSE history classes, it is often in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. Although very important to teach, there are other aspects of history that could lend a more positive outlook to pupils of BME backgrounds – and should seek to balance the curriculum with positive contributions made by black people throughout history as well.
Much like the optional history curriculum, the world of academia can inhibit the progress of academics and staff from BME backgrounds. Data provided by the University and College Union’s (UCU) analysis of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) staff record, suggested that members of BME backgrounds faced pay gaps ranging between 9% and 14% when compared to their white colleagues. 84% and 93% of UK higher education and university respectively staff were white. Although HESA figures show that UK universities are constantly increasing academic and non-academic staff, the progress in employing staff from ethnic minorities is slow. There are only 140 black professors and just under 1,400 Asian professors in the UK. And of those who are employed by UK institutions, data shows black academics and professors are less likely to be promoted into senior positions or be awarded research grants.
However, challenging this status quo is about to get significantly harder. Already, the UK has a shady and shameful immigration history as immigration controls tend to look unfavourable on academics coming from regions like Africa and the Middle East. Not only has the Government relied on discriminatory computer algorithms to determine whether or not an applicant should be awarded a visa, but African academics have reported increasing difficulties to come to the UK under Visit Visas as far back as 2017. The rejection rate became so common that UK conferences that invited black academics from overseas had little choice but to relocate elsewhere in Europe. As a result, the UK misses out on the exchange of minds and talent because the Government would rather chase an arbitrary numbers game that is emboldened by discriminatory algorithms.
Yet the UK clearly has not learned from its mistakes as here to exacerbate the problem is not only the Coronavirus pandemic but the post-Brexit immigration rules. The new points-based immigration system that looms for 2021 presents entire new barriers and tougher rules for those seeking entry – including for academics looking to work or contribute in a UK university and talented youth looking to study in them.
Should the UK continue to follow this route it could stand in the way of collaborative works between people of different backgrounds. As one of the beacons of education and diversity of thought, the UK’s education system could benefit from the incorporation of BME history. Promoting understanding and knowledge will have a positive impact on the way we deal with race in society. Instead, the UK risks becoming shut off from the world and ignorant to learn from its mistakes and past. Without assessing the immigration rules in place, racism sadly continue to churn within the next generation.