Black people in Stem education have poorer academic career progression – report

Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent
·5-min read

Black people in science, technology, engineering or maths (Stem) higher education in the UK have poorer degree outcomes and lower rates of academic career progression than other ethnic groups, research suggests.

Two reports from the Royal Society set out “unacceptable” inequalities in higher education over the past 10 years, and in the pool of UK-based researchers available for the organisation’s own early career fellowship grants.

According to the research, published using Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) data, the proportion of black students entering undergraduate and postgraduate education has increased over the past decade.

The figure has also risen for other minority ethnic groups, but black students are leaving Stem in greater numbers at all stages of the career pipeline.

The president of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, said: “Talented black people are not finding science careers in UK academia and that is unacceptable.

“The reasons are complex and have been much discussed but we have not made enough progress.

“Our reports show that black people are more likely to drop out of science at all points of the career path.

“It is time that the whole science community comes together to find out why and put it right.”

The first report – Ethnicity Stem data for students and staff in higher education – was compiled by education and research organisation Jisc using diversity statistics from 2007/08 to 2018/19.

It found a significant variation in rates of progression and outcomes across ethnic groups.

The report identifies several persistent trends it says should be researched further.

These include higher non-completion rates among black Stem students, disparities in degree outcomes for black students, and variation in progression through Stem study and careers across ethnic groups.

In 2017/18, the non-completion rate among black Stem first degree students was 4.7% and 6.3% among postgraduates.

This compared with undergraduate and postgraduate dropout rates of 2.9% and 4.4% respectively for Asian students, and 2.7% and 3.8% for white students.

The report found that white students in 2018/19 were twice as likely as black students to graduate with first class honours – 35.7% compared with 17.9%.

Black students were roughly three times more likely than white students to leave their first degree with a third – at 9.5%, compared with 3.2%.

Speaking at an online briefing on Thursday, hosted by the Science Media Centre, Sir Adrian said: “I think it might be true to say that like many other organisations historically we haven’t paid as much attention to diversity and inclusion issues and we are now determined to do that.”

He compared the issues raised in the reports to discussions that the Royal Society has had on gender equality, adding: “If you go back 10, 15 years and you look at the percentage of professors who are female you’re seeing very similar issues.

“But the trends there are encouraging and I think there might be lessons to be learnt about the interventions on the gender front, which have made a difference, but that’s still an issue.”

According to the analysis, within groups there is variation across subject, gender, age, nationality, institution type and postcode, suggesting the diminishing value of reporting broad categories like black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME).

Dr Mark Richards, senior lecturer and head of outreach in the physics department at Imperial College London and a member of the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee, said: “This data is so potent because it looks at these trends over 10 years and shows where there might be systemic issues at play and where collective action is required.”

The Jisc report calls for funders to undertake detailed diversity profiles of their grants and the pool of researchers eligible to apply for them.

The second report published on Thursday, produced by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC), aims to address this for postdoctoral researchers in the UK eligible for the Royal Society’s early-career fellowship programmes.

From a potential pool of 13,405 eligible postdoctoral researchers, around 42% are female, 29% are from a minority ethnic group of all nationalities – but only around 2% from a black background.

Of the 5,070 eligible UK nationals, just 1% are from black backgrounds, 7.5% from Asian backgrounds and 12% from any ethnic minority background.

A comparison with applications from UK nationals that the Royal Society received for early-career fellowships between 2018-20 shows they do not represent this eligible pool.

Only 8% of applicants to the University Research Fellowships and 11.5% of Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships were from individuals who identified as from an ethnic minority background.

On the issue of using BAME as a general term, Dr Richards told the online briefing that there may be times when it is necessary to use it, but drilling down on the broad multi-ethnic categories and experiences was needed to effect change.

He said: “A British person from the Bangladeshi community compared to a UK-based Chinese national are likely to have quite different experiences but they would be recorded as Asian.

“The same applies to even within the black community.”

In the last three years there were no applications from black British researchers to the Society’s University Research Fellowship scheme (excluding Sir Henry Dale Fellowships).

The Royal Society is convening a discussion with representatives from the higher education sector, funders and diversity and inclusion groups to talk about the reports and what action is needed to close the attainment gap.

It is also commissioning further work on socioeconomic inequalities to look into the issues further.