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How extensive is the lack of diversity in academia?

After recent reports have shown that of all UK university professors, less than 1% identify as black (155 out of over 23,000), the seemingly unending debate of diversity has resurfaced once again. Black studies Professor Kehinde Andrews of Birmingham City University said that this “make-up of professors is the perfect reflection of the narrow Eurocentric views still produced by universities”. Professor Andrews went on say that he has “seen very few genuine attempts to address the issues of racism at any level across the sector”.

This raises some questions: why is diversity important? How bad is diversity in academia?

the presence of diversity is thus seen as a way for more perspectives and opinions to be heard

Diversity is often used as a word to describe the abundance of difference between the members of a certain collective. This difference could manifest itself in many ways such as in race, gender or sexual orientation. In today’s multicultural climate, a lack of diversity is looked down upon as the inability of the group lacking it to hear or tolerate perspectives from people who may be different from themselves. The presence of diversity is thus seen as a way for more perspectives and opinions to be heard by people of many different backgrounds.

Given this, it is understandable why the head of lecturers’ union UCU, Dr Jo Grady, would call this situation a “terrible waste of talent”.

Despite underrepresentation of Black academic talent, it is not all bad news for diversity in academia. There is progress in other demographics. Chinese people as an ethnic group for example are particularly well represented; with over 7,000 Chinese academics working at UK universities during the 2017/18 academic year, which is around 3% of the total cohort of academic staff in the country. This is in contrast to the fact that the ethnic Chinese population in the UK is only around 0.7%.

The ethnic white population is well represented, too. With 89% of professors at UK universities identifying as white, as compared to 86% of the general population. However, representation does not necessarily equate to diversity. In an instance where one group constitutes an overwhelming majority in the general population, some would argue that proportionally representing them is counterintuitive to the idea of diversity. Having nearly nine in 10 of all professors being white could block out and suppress racial minority perspectives, simply by virtue of them being the nation’s majority ethnic group.

Only 28% of professors identify as women

Diversity in terms of gender doesn’t look great either. Only 28% of professors identify as women, although that is up from 23% five years ago. This sits in contrast to the fact that 46% of all academic staff identify as women. Baroness Amos, the UK’s first Black female university head, criticised this gender gap, calling it a result of “deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes which need to be overcome”.

It is easy to see the Warwick alum’s point of view. Despite being vaguely representative of the general population at lower levels of academia, the titles at the top are mostly reserved for men. This a great opportunity squandered to have diverse perspectives from women across cultural or social backgrounds. Many think this is a hint at the ugly deep rooted causes of this lack of diversity, namely discrimination, which is another societal issue of its own that needs addressing.

The outlook for members of the LGBTUA+ community is better. Diversity in this field is surprisingly strong, with academic staff of all age groups consistently representing the LGBTUA+ community more than the general population. For staff between 31-39, 18% identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual according to a study by the UCU. In comparison, 2.2% of the UK population identified as LGB in 2018 according to data from the Office for National Statistics. Assuming that the sample by UCU was at least somewhat representative of the rest of academia, homosexual and bisexual people are more than eight times better represented in academia, than in the rest of society.

Championing the voice of demographic minorities like this is a win for the principle of diversity. As Friedrich Hayek puts it in The Constitution of Liberty, a civilisation could only progress through ideas or perspectives put forward by its minorities first, before they could become the accepted view of the majority in the future.

This does mean though that the cause for diversity in academia still has some way to go, with hardly any voices from the Black community and a greatly underrepresented demographic in women at the highest levels. The strides forwards made in the fields of Asian and LGBTUA+ representation are countered by strides back from the underrepresentation of other communities, not to mention the dominating implications that an almost 90% white workforce could have on ethnic minorities, as explained by Robin DiAngelo in her book White Fragility.

Just 12% of UK academics have right-of-centre political views

However, some would argue that there is another form of diversity people seldom discuss. They contend that since demographic diversity is seen as beneficial by so many, due to its promotion of difference in our values, perspectives and ideas, it could be said that diversity of thought is in fact a means to a greater end. The end goal, in their eyes, is a world where each of us could fully express our unique individuality, bringing our own strengths to the table, and along with many others, we play off of each other’s strengths to form a capable collective.

In other words, freedom, and therefore abundance, of opinions, ideas, thought, and originality is seen as the destination; diversity is seen as the means by which we get there.

So how is diversity of thought in academia? Despite making up roughly half of the population, conservative viewpoints are vastly underrepresented. Just 12% of UK academics have right-of-centre political views. Another survey finds that 80% of university lecturers are left-wing.

Unsurprisingly, those on the Right of politics disapprove of this situation. “Isn’t the purpose of a liberal education to expose students to different points of view?” is a common line of argument, as expressed by Charlie Kirk. They believe that, much like the effects an overwhelming white cohort could have on ethnic minorities as discussed above, suppression of thought is exactly what the overwhelming majority presence of the Left in academia is doing. Dennis Prager called his media company “Prager University” because he believed traditional universities were not delivering on education by not offering academic spaces with sufficient diversity of thought and looked to provide an “alternative” to it.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that PragerU is comparable to a real university; but to some extent, its founder may be right. After asking several members of the University of Warwick Conservative Association whether they are comfortable openly disclosing their political views on campus, I found that “no” was the clear majority response.

A lot of right-of-centre students do not feel safe to “come out” and bring their side of the argument to the debate in this day and age. This may be a result of fear of intimidation or losing friends, and the “cancel culture” that everyone thinks could have a real impact on their lives. To many people, videos posted on social media by Turning Point UK are mere propaganda, but for others, the problems on display in them do represent a real issue.

But although progress is slow in many regards, it is nonetheless there

With all of these issues with diversity at hand, it is apparent that fixes may be needed. Different problems require different approaches for their solutions, but one such fix for the lack of racial diversity, for example, may be to adopt affirmative action programmes like those used in the United States. Despite it being a potential source for further racism, Harvard’s race based admissions programme could be used as a way to “break the cycle” and encourage more students from typically underrepresented racial backgrounds to apply. If more prospective Black students go on to higher education now, we could hope to see more Black professors in the coming years. By encouraging a more diverse student body now, we could improve diversity among professors and upper levels of academia in the future.

There are many industries with less diversity than academia, but clearly our top educational institutions are not perfect. Many communities are still underrepresented, be it racially, sexually or politically. The historical and structural causes for underrepresentation of the likes of the Black community and women seem to still influence many parts of society today and academia is no exception.

But although progress is slow in many regards, it is nonetheless there. As already mentioned above, representation of women has improved by 5% since 2016. Moreover, 1.7% of the 3,000 additional professors in the same time frame were black. This shows that at the very least academia is moving in a positive direction, towards its destination, where one day perspectives on campus will be truly abundant and diverse.

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