New generation of Black researchers to be supported by pioneering project

  • Date

    Wed 24 Nov 21

Profile pictures of academics and SU representatives

A pioneering new project at the University of Essex is aiming to break down barriers and support the next generation of Black researchers from undergraduate through to postgraduate level.

Research England – part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) - and the Office for Students are investing nearly £8m in 13 projects across England to tackle persistent inequalities that create barriers for Black, Asian and minority ethnic students to access and take part in postgraduate research.

Delivered over the next four years, the projects will improve access into research, enhance the UK’s research culture and improve the educational experience for Black, Asian and minority ethnic postgraduate research students, while diversifying and enhancing routes into a range of careers. The Essex project, 'Transitions and Transformations: Black Researcher’s Journey', is one of those selected for this competitive funding and will specifically address the challenges and barriers faced by Black students.

Match funding has been provided by the University of Essex and contributions from external partners – bringing the total investment in this transformative initiative close to £1m.

Essex Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said: “We're determined to drive forward change and enhance inclusivity across the global research community by showing how we can overcome the challenges and barriers faced by Black students and researchers."

Professor Madeline Eacott, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Race Inclusion Champion at Essex, said: “We want to work together to transform the support for Black students at every stage of their studies so that the prospect of becoming a researcher opens up to them early and they are actively supported to confidently progress onto postgraduate study and into a career in research. We plan to create a powerful model for others to learn from and implement.”

Professor Chris Greer, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, said: “The Essex project is forging partnerships across the sector to develop an innovative digital platform and programme of actions to transform access to research careers and opportunities for talented Black researchers. They are severely underrepresented within UK higher education and consistently face a wide range of barriers to progress on to postgraduate research, so we need to take action.”

The aim is to create a bold ambitious model – including a digital platform, training for students and staff, funding, mentoring, career and professional development opportunities – which university leaders will be able to put in place at their institutions around the world. The project will also fully evaluate the impact of actions taken.

Key partners include leading researcher development expert Vitae, graduate-level talent data specialist Gradintelligence, Leading Routes – the pioneering initiative strengthening the academic pipeline for Black students, Diverse Minds – which promotes mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, and The Brilliant Club - .which works with less advantaged students to access and succeed at university. HM Government’s Open Innovation Team, which deepens collaboration between government officials and academics, has also been closely involved.

Sophie Kabangu, Black Officer at Essex’s Students’ Union, said: “The project is an amazing opportunity for Black students. It will show Black students that their needs are being heard and they have the chance to become successful researchers. It will also give Black students the confidence and support that they need. As a Black student, I understand the importance of this. At times, higher education can feel like an environment I do not belong, as I was never taught by black lecturers. It is hard to imagine yourself being something if you are not being represented in those spaces. This project can be a step in the right direction with there being more Black and ethnic minorities represented in research.”

Professor Sanja Bahun, Dean of Postgraduate Research and Education, said: “Our community and our partners want to take bold and far-reaching actions to challenge underrepresentation and make sure talented Black students have the opportunities to fulfil their potential and achieve their aspirations within higher education and in other types of research-related organisations.”

The national vision

Co-Chairs of the national selection panel, Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE and Maisha Islam, said: “Over the course of 2020-21, the longstanding urgency for racial equality was incredibly obvious. We are confident that this competition will be a significant step of tangible action, investment and commitment to support these aims in the context of English Higher Education.

“The 13 projects will work collectively to support the entire PGR lifecycle using innovative methods and approaches. This includes reviewing admissions processes to tackle offer rate gaps, and plans to extend routes into doctoral study via professional doctorates and partnering with the NHS. Other projects will focus specifically on intersectional inequalities related to Black female students, and prioritise the mental health of their PGR students of colour.

“We have sought to back projects that have demonstrated authentic engagement and partnership work with their students and staff of colour, and a commitment to continue this as part of their own ongoing evaluation.

“This is only one of many first steps, as systemic inequalities will not disappear overnight. We are acutely aware of how much further the sector needs to travel to be in a position to allow people of all backgrounds to flourish and establish the most outstanding research and innovation sector with a formidable research culture to match.”

More about the project

The Essex project emerged from in-depth discussions at the University around the need to take on the failure of UK universities to consistently support Black students to success in their studies and into research. According to the latest HESA figures just 155 professors out of 22,810 in the UK are Black. The UKRI’s most recent diversity report states that just 4 per cent of students starting postgraduate research courses in 2018-19 were Black and just one per cent of UKRI-funded studentships went to Black students.

The project was developed by Annecy Lax and Professor Royce Carroll, together with a support group of academics and professional services staff including Black staff and student representatives. It will be led by Professor Bahun (Dean PGRE), Professor Carroll, and incoming Deputy Dean of Postgraduate Research Training Professor Ilaria Boncori.

The leadership team will be supported by a Strategy and Management Board that includes members of the University’s Tackling Racism Working Group.

It has been vitally important to have prominent Black researchers such as Professor Winifred Eboh land Dr Hannah Gibson and Black alumni closely involved in the project, so it reflects the lived experience of Black academics within the Essex community.

Leading experts on evaluation and inclusivity such as Professor Gina Reinhard are also helping assess the impact of the project.

Feedback from our community

Adetunji Bolorunduro, Postgraduate Research Officer at Essex’s Students’ Union, said: “It is no longer news that there is underrepresentation of Black students particularly in education and to be more specific in research. This is largely due to a lack of access to funds and grants to pursue their educational dreams. As we all know, postgraduate research costs a lot financially and mentally. How do you then ensure diversity and inclusion? This is why I am elated to hear about this project as I believe this will encourage prospective and current Black researchers.”

Dr Hannah Gibson, from the Department of Language and Linguistics, said: “I’m delighted that our application was successful and that the Office for Students has decided to support this really important work. This project provides us with a real opportunity to focus on creating further opportunities for Black students to continue into postgraduate research opportunities.”

“We know this is an area in which much more work needs to be done. This project will go some way to better understanding the challenges as well as working collaboratively to identify actions that work.

“As a Black academic who has been through the journey to PhD myself, I know how important it is to have targeted support and open conversations about the issues facing higher education in terms of race equality. This is a fantastic chance to make a real difference and it is great to see such a high level of institutional support from Essex.”

Professor Winifred Eboh, from the School of Health and Social Care, said: “The success of our application for funding from the Office for Students to support Black students into research careers and pathways demonstrates the University of Essex’s commitment to address the inequalities faced by this group of students navigating Higher Education and in particular access to postgraduate studies.

“My own journey as a Black academic succeeding in my postgraduate studies was supported by two excellent supervisors who took it on themselves to ‘walk me through the processes’. They did not take anything for granted; this included the academic language and hidden processes that only someone who has been through the process can understand. They coached me at every step of the way, sending me to source information that guided me through the processes. I was also fortunate to have achieved the required entry qualification (1st or 2:1) to be admitted to the University of my choice.

“Helping Black students understand the processes and addressing the barriers that prevent them achieving the required standards to embark on postgraduate studies is a start. We need to challenge other cultural barriers that hinder their success. We have a great team at the University who will start to dismantle some of these barriers but appreciate that it is a long-term project that needs continual commitment from our university community.

“I am absolutely delighted that we were successful in this funding and grateful to all my colleagues who worked on this bid.”

Dr Andrew E. Yaw Tchie, who completed his Masters and PhD at Essex and is now Senior Fellow and Head of the Training for Peace Programme at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, has also been closely involved in developing the programme.

He said: “The programme will support young researchers like me who are often faced with structural inequalities, pre-existing perceptions and prejudice, and struggling with everyday challenges that life and society can bring with being a minority.

“This is a unique opportunity to support and empower upcoming talent to thrive and become the best researchers, policymakers and thinkers in this world.”

“I hope that this project will inspire students from all walks of life to take steps to become researchers and inspire the next generation of Black intellectual thinkers. My desire is for this project to evolve to support students from Black and minority backgrounds within the UK and diaspora to reach their goals as intellectual thinkers and be used as a platform to engage with and support researchers from the global south, changing the perception and narrative of intellectual differences - especially towards female and male researchers who are overlooked because they sound or look like me.”