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New 'Black Studies' degree: Is this what our education system needs?


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As of September 2017, Birmingham City University will be the first in Europe to offer a degree in ‘Black Studies’. This is huge news.

According to BCU, the course will “focus on examining the histories, social movements and contributions of people of African descent” as it pertains to Britain – so this is not to be confused with similar courses offered at other UK establishments.

This development at BCU is definitely a step in the right direction, as it incorporates the experiences of those in the African Diaspora into UK academia. For far too long, minority ethnic perspectives have been overlooked and those with insight into this country’s educational system have seen this.

There has been a rise in university applications from BAME students which has resulted in a more diverse student body and yet this diversity is not reflected on curriculums. BAME influence on society has been second to none; from fields of British Art and Popular Culture to the Sciences and Politics, the list is endless. Sir Lenny Henry, Diane Abbott, Stephen Lawrence, Val McCalla, Baroness Valerie Amos, Ignatius Sancho, the impact of Lovers Rock and Grime scenes – they have all had an impact.

Still, black students are consistently told that we are not important and our narratives are seemingly rendered non-existent. The fact that BCU have been courageous enough in such a climate as this to construct and offer a degree in ‘Black Studies’ is no mean feat. In an article, BCU’s Associate Professor of Sociology Kehinde Andrews stated: “When knowledge is so limited, it is damaging not only to black students, but it prevents us from understanding society as a whole”. UK academia needs to become more culturally integrated if social mobilisation is to continue.

On the topic of integration, I have two main concerns about how the degree will fare in British society as it stands. The first is how useful it will be, particularly whilst the concept of it is still brand new and, in some ways, taboo. At the moment, ‘Black Studies’ is not going to rank among the top degrees by starting salary, as subjects like Engineering, Medicine and Computer Science do.

Undergraduate tuition fees currently sit at a staggering £9,000 per year and fewer students are taking risks with their choices, because there’s nothing frivolous about being in £27,000 worth of debt. In fact there has been a recent petition over the repayment terms and charges of Student Loans.

Many students do not have the luxury of studying solely for the purposes of interest or curiosity, even if they strongly identify with a particular area of study. For the average student, going to University is out of a necessity to secure a better, financially stable future by finding a job afterwards and forging a career. Subjects that are considered as less valuable by employers – like those in the social and creative fields – are not being chosen as much for undergraduate study. ‘Black Studies’ may well fall into that category; it may not be as popular or effective as a separate entity as it would if it were incorporated into mainstream, ‘traditional’ subjects, such as English and History.

In order for this important and crucial subject to truly serve students, the UK’s corporate, educational and social infrastructure needs a major re-haul. These institutions need to acknowledge the monumental importance of black contribution. How? I do not profess to have all of the answers, but it can start through mass conversation which, to be honest, can only be propelled by the BAME community.

Secondly, will holding a degree in ‘Black Studies’ stand to make life harder for the black graduate, to whom the course might appeal the most? Asking these questions is where we are at, unfortunately. Unless the student who opts for 'Black Studies' plans to enter into specific career paths such as Academia, aspects of Social Work or Government, I believe that there will be an initial struggle to find work after University.

Bear in mind that I am speaking as a concerned, slightly exasperated but passionate Black British student who has seen my peers and marginalised community undergo daily struggles for equality and success – from the classroom to the boardroom.

It has been said that most employers have a tendency to view degrees favourably regardless of what subject it is in, particularly if a First and Upper Second classification has been awarded. However, the UK's archaic notions of cultural capital have seen the prioritisation of some subjects over others. Sad but true.

The working world that awaits many students after graduation continues to become increasingly competitive, and even more so for BAME students. This is owing to the large 'elephant in the room': BAME workers face systemic disadvantages in the UK as a result of deeply ingrained, institutional racism. Recent research has shown that there is a 23% gap in hourly pay between black and white university graduates. Further studies highlight that those who identify themselves as BAME need to make nearly twice as many job applications to get an interview. So: BAME individuals have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to be considered for positions of employment.

Studies also show that 50% of black students in the UK are more likely to drop out of University than white students, which prompted University minister Jo Johnson and the Prime Minister to call for greater support to be given to minority students. Yet, here we are with our fingers crossed, waiting for a more diverse curriculum that will resonate with BAME students and possibly help to improve the drop-out rate amongst black ones.

Given previous Conservative comments about multiculturalism, the prospect of support for the interests of BAME students seems dim, especially without a great deal of noise being made first. This links to my initial point about the need for greater conversation.

Having studied a Humanities course that desperately lacked Cultural Diversity, I have been left disillusioned with the English education system. I echo the feeling of disgruntlement with the lack of diversity across the curriculum, which has even caused to me to sometimes wonder if University is just another tool for the reinforcement of social inequalities!

The subject matter on my course was very much of his story – the ShakespearesWoolfs and Chaucers and very little of mine via the LevysAngelous and Blackmans. With no disrespect intended towards the talent of the former writers, University has been charged with fostering learning; therefore it is important to offer a diverse range of topics and modules. It is unacceptable to expect the student to wait until their dissertation for such liberty. 

The ethos behind a degree in ‘Black Studies’ at BCU is close to my heart and I am aware that real change does not come about overnight. This recent development at BCU has been a long time coming, and is one many are very glad to see – myself included.

Hopefully this will help to start the aforementioned discussions surrounding widespread reform. A part of this aspired-to debate should include the involvement of Black Studies in Primary/Secondary education as a next step; this should be led by BAME community leaders, as well as active and informed citizens.

On that note, I commend the six formidable professionals whose hard work and commitment resulted in the course’s implementation; now, let us all be inspired to work on further enhancements that holds diversity and social enrichment at the fore.

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