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Giving power to our students

STRONGER TOGETHER: from left, the Leading Routes team, from left, Chantelle Lewis, Paulette Williams and Busayo Twins

THE LACK OF diversity in UK higher education has been a major talking point in recent years.

While much has been made of the increasing numbers of young people of African Caribbean heritage going to university, research from the University Partnerships Programme Foundation and the Social Market Foundation show that black students in England are 1.5 times more likely to drop out than their white and Asian counterparts. But one woman is determined to change this.

Paulette Williams has worked in higher education for over a decade leading widening participation and student success projects as well as a range sustained engagement initiatives for students in further education.

She founded Leading Routes, an initiative that aims to explore new ways of strengthening the academic pipeline for black students – and the organisation has just launched a campaign called Black in Academia.

“Black people’s accomplishments in higher education have been overshadowed by troubling admissions numbers, particularly in the Russell Group; disparities linked to attainment when compared to peers; poor retention rates; and unbelievably low numbers of black professors,” she said.

“These challenges are very real and need to be addressed by institutions in the sector for real change to happen, and we will continue to speak out on behalf of black students.

DIALOGUE: The panel and audience at the Black In Academia (BIA)


“Through the work we do at Leading Routes, we want to change the narrative around higher education for black students and begin an open, honest dialogue with institutions in the sector about how we can drive real, sustainable change long-term.”

Since their first event in April 2017, Leading Routes has engaged with a range of people in the black community to speak about issues that affect the community in relation to accessing higher education.

As a result of these conversations, the organisation has accumulated a large following online via social media as a result of their engaging promotional videos and posters – both of which have received positive feedback from teachers and educators as useful resources for engaging students in conversation about pursuing higher education.

The organisation has also hosted two events entitled Paths to University, which has attracted 200 attendees, enabling parents, carers and young people to gain insightful and practical information about higher education – from details about the university recruitment processes and student finance, to experiences of black university students and conversations about community leadership.

Additionally, the company also attracted 85 people to their Black in Academia (BIA) launch, hosted and supported by the British Library, University College London and the Ubele Initiative. The afternoon consisted of conversations that shone a light on the hidden truths about successfully staying the course in academia; myth-busting PhD funding routes and insightful stories from established black academics, namely Dr Lisa Palmer of Birmingham City University, Dr Adom Philogene Heron of Goldsmiths University, Dr Jason Arday of Roehampton University and current PhD researcher April-Louise Pennant of the University of Birmingham.

PICTURED: Keynote speaker Lisa Palmer of Birmingham City University

“Of the 19,000 professors in the UK, less than one per cent are black,” said Williams.

“We understand that much work needs to be done by higher education intuitions to create a more inclusive environment, but in the meantime, we are developing innovative ways to strengthen networks for black students to become better informed and empowered to survive in academia.


“Black in Academia aims to further the conversation about the representation and experiences of black students and staff in UK universities.”

Williams continued: “We want to create spaces to celebrate black achievement in higher education and to share information and experiences that could help those interested in pursuing a PhD or career in academia We understand that our work must be done alongside being a critical friend of institutions in higher education. We want to prepare the next generation of black academics through creating a network that supports black students throughout the student lifecycle – from prospective students to PhD research students. We want people to have a clearer understanding of the process for applying for a PhD.

“It’s more than just putting a proposal together, and much of the additional information required to be successful is not transparent or accessible.

“We want students to feel like they belong in universities and that they have more confidence navigating and challenging in those spaces. They are our spaces too – and we have a lot to offer them.”

Chantelle Lewis, programme director for Black In Academia and part-time PhD student, said: “While Black in Academia is about both informing and inspiring the next generation of black academics in the UK, we remain acutely aware that the continued lack of black PhD students, lecturers and professors is an example of the institutional racism that remains at the core of higher education. This movement is about negotiating a system which needs to do more to adequately address its lack of inclusivity.” Karisse Joseph was two years into her PhD journey at a prestigious London university, but felt unsupported, undervalued and excluded from the start.


Despite her passion and enthusiasm, she could not continue in the extremely unhealthy working environment she was subjected to.

This effectively led to her making the decision to leave, resulting in her stopping her research at the institution.

She explained: “I was really surprised when I didn’t thrive doing my PhD.

“For two years, I worked very hard and felt like I was in the wrong environment at an institution that had a very good reputation, but had lots of black students, post and during their studies, experiencing a lot of racism, micro aggression, and more serious incidences.

“I felt very alienated. I felt discouraged and that value wasn’t seen in me, to a point where I was going out of my way to find academic spaces where race was on the agenda.”

She adds: “Institutions need to put more funding and recognition into making the staff that supervise the students more diverse.

“This means allowing black academics to thrive and get to positions in the academy where they can supervise black students – across all fields. And if there are particular areas of research, then institutions need to ensure that there are people in the departments that are representing these groups.

“For example, if research is being conducted on the black population or on the LGBT community, then someone from these backgrounds needs to supervise research.”

She continues: “There’s a real unequal power dynamic, between the populations that are studied and the populations that are making up the academic class. I think my experience would have been very different if I had been supervised by a black academic. Institutions need to do a lot of work to change how black students are supported.


“It’s not just about beefing up the numbers of the black and minority students that are there, but recognising their experiences and improving them once they are in academia in order for them to have healthier outcomes.”

Only through continuing this much-needed conversation and activism can the lived experience of black students in higher education begin to change long-term.

Paulette said: “Black students and staff should feel we can be ourselves, and universities need to create environments where we are understood and our contributions are valued.

“There are lots of ways to engage with Leading Routes.

“People can join our network so they have access to our events and can meet others in the same space, as well as participate in the conversation through social media.

“Check out our BIA video series on YouTube, support our work – or even buy the merchandise.”

She adds: “We have a busy event schedule for 2019, with regular events for both current and prospective students.

“We’re also planning some regional events outside of London.

“We’re building our network to offer more opportunities for black people in higher education to meet and support each other.”

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