The crisis facing Black graduates in the UK

NCF Researcher Lauretta Garrard examines the lack of a level playing field for black graduates in the UK. The opening session of the forthcoming NCF Summer conference concentrates on the Black Lives Matter issue. If you wish to attend follow this link.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum, and growing numbers of employers have announced plans to cut jobs in the UK, we must think about the employment prospects of Black university students. This September an estimated two million will enter into a transformed labour market, yet it is Black graduates who may face the most disadvantage. Black and ethnic minority communities have in many ways been disproportionately harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this iniquity is not likely to improve for Black students in their inclusion and experiences within occupations.

Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that Black students in the UK are less likely to be in full time employment than their white peers (53% of Black graduates are in full time occupations compared to 62% of white graduates). There are also clear disparities in the makeup of professions in the UK, with Black employees underrepresented in senior roles. Only 1.5% of those in senior roles in the private sector are Black. Pay gaps between ethnic groups in the UK also remain wide. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, UK-born Black employees earn 7.7% less than white British workers. Poignantly, this is similar to the gender pay gap which stands at 8.9% and it is clear that employment discrimination continues to exist within the UK labour market. 

While action must be taken to tackle occupational disadvantages which remain stratified by ethnic origin, institutions play an important role in creating these conditions. Widening access to programmes at prestigious universities is likely to improve the prospects of graduates where many still have lower percentages of Black students. For example, in 2019 only 3.2% of students at The University of Oxford, and 3.4% of students at the University of Cambridge were Black. Black students within these institutions therefore remain unrepresented, where Black 18-24-year olds make up 4% of the population in England and Wales, according to the 2011 census (with data unavailable for the whole of the UK). These are some of the UK’s most prestigious institutions, yet they are failing to represent Black students more than most other universities in the country. Both universities in particular have been questioned about their lack of representation in its student and staff makeup, and despite their widening participation programmes, it is clear that more must be done. Identifying what enables existing occupational advantage is also important. This could involve research into the formal and informal ways in which non-black and minority ethnic graduates gain privilege over Black students. 

As students at The University of Oxford campaign to take down a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, we must urgently address how racism and specifically anti-Blackness continues to go unaddressed within institutions.  It is important that we account for a history of racial exploitation, colonialism and slavery while paying attention to and taking responsibility for the work that still has to be done. The combination of the pandemic and ongoing racial discrimination are likely to threaten the job prospects of Black students to a significant degree, and measures to mitigate this must be adopted quickly. In the words of Helen Barnard, acting director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who has recently commented on these occupational disadvantages “although we are all weathering the same storm, we are not all in the same boat”.


COVID-19 and learning gaps between children in the UK

COVID-19 has severely impacted the lives of disadvantaged pupils in the UK. Many are back at school this month, but plans for all primary schools to reopen before the summer have been scrapped. The UK’s high infection rate of COVID-19 means that schools must continue to operate with social distancing measures, and so most children continue to learn at home. While many expressed disappointment in the government’s initial plans to reopen schools, critics, such as the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Speilman, have pivoted to argue that they should not close at all over the summer. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of these two positions, it is obvious that there has been a disorganised decision making process, with plans failing to be discussed with unions, school leaders and teachers. A plan for schools moving forward that invests in economically disadvantaged children is necessary. 

The ability of schools to reduce disadvantage is particularly important for less affluent children, who show lower levels of school readiness and are less likely to benefit from enriching home environments. The longer schools are closed, the greater the risk of educational damage as responsibilities are transferred to parents. Like professional caregivers, parents should be involved in engaging children’s cognitive processes but there is a clear link between the resources parents have and the home environments they are able to provide.

The French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdiau offers some insights here through his theory of ‘capitals’, i.e. the resources an individual has access to. While schools provide ‘cultural capital in advancing educational attainment, some children remain at an advantage where they are able to access other forms of capital at home: beneficial social networks (‘social capital’) and financial resources (‘economic capital’). Capitals are also mutually reinforcing, so a child with access to ‘economic capital’ at home, for example, will be more likely to adapt to the school environment when they return in September. Schools could also play another role in reproducing advantage: the introduction of a grading system based on teacher assessment will likely underestimate the academic potential of poorer pupils, particularly those who leave their revision until the last minute. Relying on institutional providers to challenge disadvantage alone therefore involves overlooking the resources available to some families.

There are children who have nowhere to work at home, or have little to no online access to allow virtual study and lessons. The Department for Education has been unable to deliver enough resources such as iPads and laptops to aid learning, and gaps of school readiness and performance between children can be expected to widen. The role of institutional arrangements have always been limited, as they are undermined by what happens within households, but this is now amplified by the fact that most children are learning at home. Material deprivation within families needs to be addressed, and quality provision directed to disadvantaged children when they return to school or educational disadvantages will prevail.