Counting ethnic minorities in history departments

One of the more unusual classes I went to while I was doing my PhD at King’s College London was a beginner’s Italian course at the Modern Language Centre. What was unusual wasn’t the course itself, but the high proportion of ethnic minority students taking this course: from memory, a quarter of the class or more may have been non-white. This wasn’t typical of the classes I attended, even at KCL, which is fairly ethnically mixed. The reason, apparently, wasn’t a burning desire by all of the class to learn Italian, but that the medical students at KCL were being required to do some non-medical classes and this one happened to fit in well with their timetable. It was a useful reminder of how ethnic minority participation in higher education varies a lot between subjects.


I Deug-Su, researcher in early medieval hagiography

There has recently been discussion about diversity in medieval studies, especially ethnic diversity and the extent to which racism may motivate that: Dorothy Kim included references to microaggressions suffered by non-white medievalists. She also talked about counting bodies, so I want to start doing that. Specifically, I’m interested in whether medieval history is a “leaky pipeline” in terms of ethnic minorities: do you get progressively fewer BAME participants as you get further through and higher up the academic system, as is the case with some science subjects? Or do you get the opposite pattern, where percentages of some group increase as you go up the system, as is the case for men within school teaching, where the percentage of head-teachers who are male is greater than that of the teaching workforce as a whole?

I’m looking here specifically at the UK, both because the academic system is different from that of the US and the ethnic mix and forms of racism are also different. And I’ll say at once that while the statistics aren’t readily available to look at the process in detail, they are still interesting.

In the UK, unlike in the US, students choose specific subjects on entering university rather than further along in the process. And we have broad statistics concerning the choice they make: HESA the Higher Education Statistics Agency has breakdowns of numbers of students studying subject categories by ethnicity .

I played around with the key data from 2013/2014: Table 6a from Statistical Release 210, which looked at full-time students by ethnicity in the academic year 2013-2014. This records the ethnicity of UK-domiciled students (i.e. not overseas ones) and breaks it down into four main categories, corresponding to census categories: White, Black, Asian and “Other (including mixed)”. They explain that White includes all people self-defining as white, whether or not they are of British ancestry, Black covers a variety of Afro-Caribbean identities, Asian includes Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese identities (as well as other Asian backgrounds) and “Other” includes mixed White and Black or Asian origins, other mixed backgrounds, Arab identity and a catch-all Other. (More details of the categories are given on the Census website).

What I did was quite simple: I calculated the percentage of each of these four ethnic groups who chose to study a particular subject grouping at undergraduate level. For example, 3.00% of White students chose to study medicine or dentistry, while 1.5% of Black students, 7.59% of Asian students and 4.38% of Other students did. Because there’s a wide range of subjects, the percentage of any ethnic group studying a particular subject is low, but you do get a clear sense of the distinction (if any) between ethnic groups.

It’s particularly interesting to compare subjects which have similar entrance requirements. The most striking is comparing “medicine and dentistry” with “veterinary science”, both subjects which require high A level grades in three sciences. Veterinary science is a far smaller subject group than medicine and dentistry: at undergraduate level, it’s chosen by 0.42% of White students, 0.01% of Black students (which equates to 5 full-time students), 0.05% of Asian students and 0.15% of Other students. But the contrast is still clear: more than twice as many Asian students as White ones chose to do medicine, only an eighth as many chose to do veterinary science. This isn’t simply a matter of different secondary school qualifications achieved by ethnic groups: this is about how such qualifications are used to develop one’s future.

Overall, 47% of students do science subjects (which includes agriculture, engineering and technology, and architecture, building and planning), but this disguises differences between ethnic groups: 46% of White students do science subjects, 45% of Black students, 45% of Other students and 53% of Asian students.

Here is the overall data for full-time UK-domiciled higher education undergraduates:

Ethnicity and subject studied

These show very ethnically divergent patterns for study for non-science subjects. For example, a far higher percentage of Black and Asian students choose to study business at university than White students. What particularly interests me is comparing statistics for law and history, since these seem to me likely to appeal to many of the same students (predominantly those with high performance in arts A levels). The percentages of students from different ethnic backgrounds choosing to study law as against “historical and philosophical studies” are:

Law: 3.27% White; 5.89% Black; 6.47% Asian; 4.97% Other
History: 4.94% White; 1.28% Black; 1.53% Asian; 3.86% Other

“Historical and philosophical studies” includes archaeology, philosophy, theology and heritage studies as well as history, but I’m focusing on history, as over two-thirds of the students are studying history. And the statistics are clear: Black and Asian students, by and large, choose not to study history at university, while they do choose to study law.

I also want to look at the possible existence of a “leaky pipeline”: the existence of cumulative prejudice against ethnic minority students that means few get to the higher levels of academia. Is there a particularly leaky pipeline in history? The one set of statistics that is easily available from HESA is a comparison of the number of postgraduate versus undergraduate students in a particular subject. Are BAME students who’ve studied a subject at undergraduate level less likely to study it at postgraduate level than White students?

This is obviously only a very crude measure of possible leaky pipelines, since we’re not looking at exactly the same cohort of students. Students may move between broad subject groupings as they go through the academic system and some postgrads will have come back to study after a number of years out of academic life. Nevertheless, the ratio of postgraduates to undergraduates can give a rough sense of what’s happening one step further down the academic line.

An additional complication is that postgraduate study can mean very different things in different subjects. In particular, there are very large numbers of postgraduate students of education (around a third of the total student numbers in the subject), because a common training structure for teachers is to do a first degree in a specific subject and then do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. In the statistics that follow comparing undergraduates and postgraduates, I’ve therefore excluded the “education” category from all my calculations.

Excluding those, 8.25% of UK-domiciled students are postgrads (again, these statistics don’t include the very large numbers of postgrads from overseas). At this point you’re getting down to quite small numbers in some subject categories and ethnic groups, which mean the percentages are sensitive to small changes in the actual numbers. But let’s assume that the proportion of undergraduates to postgraduates will remain constant over the near future. What chance does a UK undergraduate have of going on to study at postgraduate level? Overall, the equivalent of 9.0% of undergraduates go on to study at postgraduate level. If you break that down by ethnicity, the statistics are as follows:

8.88% White, 8.49% Black, 8.07% Asian, 9.88% Other

What about history specifically? The theoretical percentages of history undergraduates who go on to study at postgraduate level are as follows:

9.86% White, 6.47% Black, 8.38% Asian, 9.68% Other

That suggests a possible leaky pipeline, but there is a complication: the percentage of students whose ethnicity is not known (which includes those students who have declined to answer the question). For undergraduates overall, it’s 0.8% of the students, but it’s 2.5% of postgraduate students. For the historical and philosophical category it’s even higher: we don’t have data for 1.1% of history undergraduates and 4.3% of history postgraduates. To put that in numbers, there were 65 known Black students doing postgraduate study in history, 160 Asian, 215 Other and 220 “not known”.

Assuming that the majority of this Not Known data is caused by students who refuse to answer the question (since it’s not clear why history departments would have collected substantially less data than other departments), the problem is that we have no idea of the ethnicity of these students. Are they predominantly White, but refusing to provide such “political correct” information? Are they predominantly White but rejecting the idea of ethnicity as a theoretical concept? Or are they members of ethnic minorities who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be identified as such?

What is clear, however, is that in absolute numbers there are very few UK-domiciled ethnic minority students studying history at postgraduate level. Whatever the uncertainty about the ethnicity of some students, 87.2% of full-time postgraduate students doing historical and philosophical studies are self-declared to be White, out of a full-time student population (postgraduate and undergraduate) that’s only 77.2% White.

Does this imply that university history departments are discriminatory? What the overall statistics suggest is that the key moment is when students decide on their undergraduate course. Distinctive ethnic patterns of subject choice occur before students have had more than superficial contact with history departments. Students may have visited the university on Open Days etc, but even entrance interviews would normally come after a broad subject choice has already been made. If perceived or actual discrimination is putting ethnic minority students off studying history, it’s happening at an earlier stage than university.

Claims of racism specifically against history departments also don’t fit easily with some of the other data. It’s interesting to look again at the statistics I gave above comparing those who chose to study law or history at undergraduate level:

Law: 3.27% White; 5.89% Black; 6.47% Asian; 4.97% Other
History: 4.94% White; 1.28% Black; 1.53% Asian; 3.86% Other

The legal profession is hardly a bastion of diversity. There’s also the intriguing point about the Other category: students from that category are substantially more likely to study history at undergraduate level than students who identify predominantly as Black or Asian. They’re also almost as likely as White students to go on to study history at postgraduate level (9.68% v 9.86%).

Who are these “Other” students? The 2011 census gives a further breakdown of this Other category for the whole of the UK population:

0.8% White and Black Caribbean
0.6% White and Asian
0.3% White and Black African
0.5% Other Mixed
0.4% Arab
0.6% Any other ethnic group

(Statistics from Ethnicity and National Identity in England and Wales 2011). Note that the census separates Other and Mixed, but the HESA statistics combine them. In terms of percentages, in England and Wales, the Other and Mixed categories make up 3.2% of the population, Black 3.3% and Asian 7.5%. In other words, the Other/Mixed category is predominantly people of mixed ethnic background, rather than from Arab, American or Oceanic heritage and it’s almost as large a group as the Black population. If racial discrimination were a major influence on subject choice at undergraduate level, you’d expect it to affect them as much as Black or Asian students.

It’s also revealing to look at the most popular subject groups among different ethnicities. Here are the top 10 subjects studied by full-time undergraduates.

Ethnicity and top 10 subjects

What I think we’re seeing is the effect of different vocational choices. Very broadly speaking, students identifying as Black and Asian look as if they’re predominantly choosing degrees that are more obviously vocational. 34% of Black students overall are studying either “Subjects allied to medicine” or business, for example, as opposed to 20% of White students, while Asian students’ focus on science subjects and on business also suggests a strong vocational bias. In contrast, the “Other” group have patterns that look more like White students’ choices: a more even spread between subjects and more studying of “arts” subjects.

One possibility is that we seeing a confounding effect from class. If Other students are coming from higher social classes than Black or Asian students, there may be less pressure on them to study subjects that are directly vocational. Another is that there may be cultural prejudice against Black and Asian students (rather than discrimination strictly based on skin tone) and that Other students are more likely to be “read” as culturally British.

But I also wonder whether there may be issues of cultural hybridity here. Are students whose family histories are complex more likely to be conscious of the opportunities that arts subjects offer for exploring that complexity, what it means to live between cultures? If so, this is an aspect of their courses that history departments are well placed to stress.

Looking at absolute numbers, however, is sobering for history departments. In 2013/2014 there were 50,665 UK-based students studying “historical and philosophical studies” at undergraduate level: 1005 of these students were Black (2.0%), 1910 were Asian (3.8%), 2220 were Other (4.4%). There were 5085 UK-based students studying “historical and philosophical studies” at postgraduate level: 65 of these were black, 160 Asian, 215 Other. Even if there isn’t a leaky pipeline, with these kind of numbers you’re not going to get much diversity at higher levels within the next ten years. Ethnic diversity in the academic staff of UK history departments, such as it is, tends to come from staff born and educated outside the UK.

The absolute numbers also imply that many masters courses in history are going to find themselves with very little ethnic diversity or even none. In particular, if there’s any skew in the historical periods or subjects that students are interested in (and this is such a personal aspect of studying history, that there almost inevitably will be), medieval courses are in danger of a vicious circle. Ethnic minority students choose not to study the period, because it’s perceived as “too white” and then there aren’t the role models to inspire progress up the pipeline, leaky or not.

And if you’ve got historical circles where there is relatively little ethnic diversity, that in turn is a fertile field for discriminatory treatment. To take one example, when I attended the Magna Carta conference recently, there was a mixed audience of students, academics and interested members of the public. When I saw a middle-aged black man among the audience, I initially presumed he was an amateur of some kind; it was only later that I realised he was the distinguished professor of medieval history William Chester Jordan. My excuse for not recognising him is that I am generally much less well-informed about American medievalists and also those working on topics (like late medieval political history) far from my own research; I am more conscious of historians from minority backgrounds working in early medieval history.

My stupid mistake in this case had no negative consequences, but repeated careless assumptions like mine can easily lead to intended or unintended microagressions: the message being given to ethnic minority academics and would-be academics: “you don’t belong here”. Those of us who are white can try and avoid such mistakes, and support people from ethnic minorities who are interested in studying the Middle Ages, but there isn’t likely to be much change happening soon within the university sector.

If we really want to get students from ethnic minority backgrounds interested in medieval history, I think we will have to start much earlier, focusing on schools. In particular, I think it’s worth considering the new National Curriculum in History for England.

Because there’s now an emphasis on chronology, medieval history is tackled relatively early on. In particular, at key stage 2 (pupils aged 7-11), children have to study British history before 1066 andone of a choice of medieval non-European societies (“early Islamic civilization, including a study of Baghdad c. AD 900; Mayan civilization c. AD 900; Benin (West Africa) c. AD 900-1300”). If we want to hook students from all ethnic backgrounds on medieval history, that’s the time to do it. So anyone who can write about both Anglo-Saxon England and the Islamic world clearly and simply enough to engage an eight-year old needs to get out there and start doing it. It may be our best chance of ensuring that future medievalists in the UK aren’t so uniformly white.


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