Academia’s acute accessibility problem

By Ruby Veronica

The Glasgow Guardian explores whether universities are doing enough to make academia accessible.

Knowledge is a diverse substance. One which knows no boundaries to those who obtain it, regardless of gender, race, class or disability. Accordingly, it would seem that academia, a field of knowledge and study, should be an institution built upon such diversity of lived knowledge. The Glasgow Guardian conducted interviews with members of the student body about their experiences at university with regard to accessing higher education, and the overall consensus was not positive.

In the UK, there are around 23,000 university professors. Of this figure, only around 1% are black, less than 10% Asian, and over 75% are white. Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, says that this lack of representation in professors represents the institutional racism inbuilt within higher education. With demand for academics increasing as the numbers of students grow, this expansion is one which is unfortunately not reflected in the hiring practices for academics of colour. Meanwhile, only 28% of UK students are students of colour.

“My classroom is mostly white and male-dominated, which is quite a surprise since I was really looking forward to some exciting diverse discussions. It is quite disappointing, to be honest.” This is the response from a first-year politics student, expressing his concern not only about minimum classroom diversity as well as diversity amongst teaching staff, which has translated into a lack of quality, multi-racial discussions. The student expressed a desire to progress further into academia, yet he also noted that being the only person of colour is not welcoming.

On the issue of gender, a female first-year philosophy student told The Glasgow Guardian, “I have noticed that all my readings are from male philosophers. Where are the female writings?” – a sentiment that encapsulates the gender issue within academia. The student further added that “it is weird to see the classroom be mainly female-dominated, yet all the teaching staff are male. From seminar tutors to lecturers”. According to research conducted by the British Philosophical Association, the number of female students drops by half when going from undergraduate students to professors. The growth of female involvement in philosophy education in the past ten years has been minimal, having mostly a single-digit increase. Out of the 35 research and teaching staff at the University of Glasgow’s philosophy department, only 13% of them are female, making up less than one-third of the overall number of staff. This begs the question of how balanced, quality academic research can occur when there is a lack of balance within the industry. Overall, around 46% of the teaching staff at the university are female, yet they only make up around 28% of senior professor posts. I’ll let you do the maths.

Outside of the realms of race and gender, academia is similarly inaccessible for other groups, acting as a mirror of problematic societal values and attitudes. For example, as of 2019, 21.8% of disabled individuals in the UK had a degree, compared to 38% of non-disabled individuals, with the greater the impairment, the less likely one is able to access higher education. Disability comes in many forms, including mental disabilities, something which those interviewed expressed. According to UK law, those with significant, debilitating mental illness may be categorised as having a disability. One third-year student here at the University of Glasgow commented that, “Although my professor is really understanding of my situation, he would still send me more lecture notes and that seems to be the only thing he could do. He needs to understand that I can’t just work myself out of depression. I am depressed, not stupid. I can do better on my good days too.” 

Experiences of disabilities or mental illness being inadequately responded to, or misunderstood are seemingly not uncommon at the University of Glasgow. Chloe, a postgraduate student at the University, reached out to The Glasgow Guardian to share her experience of negligence from the University in regards to her diagnosis of dyslexia. According to Chloe, her requests for disability support for completion of assessments were repeatedly ignored, and she went months without any reasonable adjustments or extenuating circumstances before an intervention from a lecturer ahead of her final exams. Chloe explained her experience as such: “I believe that I was discriminated against by the University failing to make reasonable adjustments for me and my exams. I felt that I could have quit and I felt extremely mentally exhausted. I believe it because of their massive intake in students that I have fallen through the cracks of the system somewhere. My grades were impacted and as such I may not get that masters distinction and it has caused issues for possible employment in a competitive field”. For the University to be failing disabled students in the provision of the most basic level of support, to the extent that they consider dropping out of studies, is a damning indictment of the failures of its approach to creating equal opportunities for the diverse student population here at Glasgow. Given the personal experiences of individuals such as Chloe, it is little surprise that there is such an attainment gap in the completion of degrees between non-disabled and disabled individuals in the UK, as it is evident that current systems are not designed to facilitate accessible and equal learning environments. 

Furthermore, despite 39% of the UK population being from a lower social class group, those from lower social classes make up only 28% of students, with 45% of those from higher classes attending university. The University and College Union also found LGBTQ+ academics to have less job security due to their identities. 
According to one interviewee of the University and College Union, “Universities in the UK are elitist, tribalistic; biologically you will not be a part of the winners – we cannot all be cis-heteros.”This quote represents the patriarchal problem at the heart of academia. It is sad that we are not doing enough to encourage more talented people to become involved in the space of educational improvements. Although there is a less significant improvement in the promotion of diversity across campus, the majority of interviewees express the need for more effective actions. It is not the lack of diversity that is stopping academia from being accessible, it is universities’ lack of selection of diverse academics. Innovation and improvement cannot be achieved when a female researcher struggles to find another female researcher or when a classroom of predominantly white people talks about the literature of post-colonial Africa. Where is the inclusion of “world-changers”, which lie outside of cis-het-white privilege?


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