‘Data is life!’: Meet a researcher shining a spotlight on racial inequality in academia

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To mark the launch of the new research topic entitled Dismantling racial inequalities in higher education, Prof Marcia Wilson of The Open University discusses how she fell in love with data and its ability to show racial injustice in higher education.

Recent research has shown that, despite claims to the contrary, academia is not a meritocracy for black and minority ethnic (BME) students. Despite various efforts to tackle racial inequality in higher education across the globe, academics have shone a bright spotlight on the obvious disparity between grades received by people of color and white students.

Now, in an effort to catalogue this inequality, Frontiers has launched a new Research Topic called ‘Dismantling racial inequalities in higher education’ led by topic editors Prof Marcia Wilson and Dr Jenny Douglas of The Open University in the UK. It is based on a series of group seminars held by the university for black and minority ethnic (BME) researchers at the university over the course of May.

In relation to racial inequalities in higher education, a plethora of reports have identified the BME awarding gap and the experience of BME students in higher education; the lack of BME academics, particularly BME professors in higher education. For example, there are only 26 black female professors in the UK.

However racial inequality in higher education also extends to BME research students. Of 19,868 PhD studentships awarded by all the research councils between 2016 and 2018, only 245 (1.2%) were awarded to black and mixed-race students and only 30 were awarded to black Caribbean students.

Prof Marcia Wilson, The Open University

Wilson joined The Open University as dean of equality, diversity and inclusion in December 2020 having previously been the dean of the Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) at the University of East London (UEL). 

The OIE, established by Marcia to address inequalities within UEL and across the education sector, is the first of its kind in the UK. Her work included equality projects with Universities UK and London Higher to tackle racism in higher education institutes. 

The last webinar of the series, being held on 27 May and hosted by Prof Paul Warmington, is entitled ‘Critical Race Theory and the Black Radical Tradition: engaging with structural racism in education’.

Because open access and sharing research is part of Frontiers’ mission, we want to give researchers the voice to express themselves and their research with more creativity and freedom than they otherwise would have in publishing an academic paper.

If you’ve recently published your paper with Frontiers and believe you have a great story to tell, then send an email to press@frontiersin.org with ‘Frontier Scientists’ and your name in the subject line.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

It was not something that was on my radar when I was younger. It was when I was doing my PhD that I fell in love with the research process and analysing data. I would spend hours in the library and at the computer just focused on reading about issues that I was passionate about while engaged in my studies as part of my PhD.

Do you have any specific memories that set off a spark?

Yes, I was working with my PhD supervisor and we were working on one of my studies. She was so enthralled by the data that I had collected and said: “This is wonderful. Data is life!” I’ve never forgotten her comment or the enthusiasm she had for research which was infectious.
Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am working broadly on issues related to racism in higher education.

In higher education, I am very concerned about degree award gaps which are the percentage point difference in good degrees (such as receiving a first or 2:1 grade) between students of different ethnicities.

Across the UK higher education sector, approximately 80% of white students are awarded a good degree compared to approximately 58% of black students. This has been a problem in higher education for many years and gaps exist in every institution. Although the data indicates that the percentage of degree awards are increasing (more firsts and 2:1s being awarded), the gap between different ethnicities still exist.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Research can provide answers to important problems. It enables us to learn more about specific issues and how they can best be addressed. It is important that we move away from using deficit explanations for degree award gaps so that we can truly tackle the issues that maintain these unequal outcomes for students. Research provides us with solutions on the way forward.

‘People have explained persistent gaps by arguing that certain groups of students are awarded a higher degree [because they] are ill-prepared for university’

Prof Marcia wilson

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Probably the biggest and most prevalent misconception is rooted in the deficit explanation for the gaps. Over the years, people have explained the persistent gaps by arguing that certain groups of students are awarded a higher degree because they are more intelligent or that certain groups are ill-prepared for university. In other words, the cause of the gap is located within the student rather than structural issues within the institution.
What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?
A second area that I am interested in exploring is racial trauma in sport. We have witnessed sportspeople being racially abused in many different sports and many have spoken out about what has happened. We need to document the impact of these traumatic events.

There is a body of work related to racial trauma but it needs to be expanded to the sport domain. This is important because sport psychologists who work with traumatized sportspeople need to ensure awareness of how to effectively work racialized groups.

How has open science benefited the reach and impact of your research?

Science has benefited because I have written about interventions to close the gaps. I receive many invitations to speak to colleagues across the sector about this issue and accept as many as I can. Although this has been a problem for more than 20 years, people are starting to recognize that this is not a deficit issue and we have to work together to close the gaps.

If you have recently published your research with Frontiers and believe you have a story to tell, then you might feature as part of our new Frontier Scientists series! Send an email with the subject line ‘Frontier Scientists’ and your name to press@frontiersin.org , as well as details on what your most recent research was about.

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