Paulette Williams founder of Leading Routes is looking to democratise information about completing postgraduate research for Black students. Joined by part time PhD student Chantelle Lewis, they’re looking to change the conversation on the lack of inclusivity within HE.

If you work within academia or have ever been to university, you will probably be familiar with the lack of black teaching staff, that is staff of African and Caribbean heritage. Important campaigns such as Why is my professor still not black? and Why is my curriculum so white? have reignited conversations about this lack of inclusion within universities.

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According to the Higher Education Student Statistics UK (HESA), in the 2016/17 academic year, 86,835 black students enrolled at undergraduate level, 10,696 black students began a taught postgraduate course (masters level) and just 1,130 black students began a research based postgraduate degree (PhD). There is a relatively good number of black students undertaking a first degree – and even masters – but why isn’t this representation translating further down the line, with a larger number of black students going on to do research-based degrees and PhDs?

The lack of PhD’s by black students within UK universities is the product of several symptoms – access, networks, institutional racism and not belonging or feeling ill at ease in university cultures. It is unlikely that one initiative can singlehandedly eradicate the disease that is institutional racism within elite spaces, but we do believe that we can make a huge contribution to better prepare and inform more black students about the different paths into university study and careers.

This was the key motivation behind the organisation Leading Routes, founded by Paulette Williams in 2016. In early 2018, Chantelle Lewis joined the team to lead on the launch of an initiative to help black undergraduates and postgraduate students navigate careers in academia. Through the sharing of information and experiences, the new Black in Academia campaign by Leading Routes aims to further the conversation about the representation and experiences of black students and staff in UK universities. We want to create spaces to celebrate black achievement in higher education and prepare the next generation of black academics.

Black in Academia: Staying the Course is a series of events, hosting panels of black academics working or studying (at PhD level) within universities across the UK. The aim of the events is to give practical advice to ensure that if you are interested in continuing a career in academia, you have all the tools you need to make an informed decision on the route you’d like to take. The events will address navigating funding arrangements, the best ways to approach academics in your field and understanding the basic principles and building blocks of a career in research. So much of the information you need for a career in academia is hidden – we are trying to change this.

The events will help black students understand how to access networks within higher education through careful planning. For example, it is when funding opportunities and the processes of selection are explained at an early stage that students can gain the confidence in how to frame their projects to funders and to access and create the networks necessary to build a strong foundation for their work, including the development of networks.

At Leading Routes, we acknowledge that major changes are needed within institutions. We ask – in the meantime – what can we do from a black-led perspective to create a clear vision where we finally see more black academics within UK universities? Black scholars and academic activists are taking more control of the narrative on inclusion, race and gender equality within Higher Education.

This is the moment where we build on their incredible work to take practical steps to ensure there are more black lecturers, academics, and professors teaching and researching in UK universities. This will enhance the quality of teaching, learning and research in universities for everyone.

Through our Black in Academia campaign we have launched a series of videos to put a spotlight on the academic journeys of black students and established academics. The videos also explore how we can bridge the gap between academia and black communities. We are demonstrating that the university can be used as a resource for everyone.

The first Black in Academia event will take place on Monday 19th November at the British Library in the Knowledge Centre from 15.30-19.00. This event is sold out but we will be launching more events for 2019 soon!


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Paulette runs Leading Routes alongside a career in access, widening participation and student success at University College London. She is currently completing a part-time MSc in Education, Power and Social Change at Birkbeck college, University of London.

Chantelle is a part-time PhD researcher in Sociology at Goldsmiths college, University of London; the editorial manager at the Sociological Review; researcher on the ESRC project Brexit Brits Abroad; and co-host of the Surviving Society podcast.

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