The U.K. university sector has become marketised and it is considered one of the few robust sectors of the economy that promise growth and prosperity post-Brexit. Within the sector, there are over 120 U.K. universities (out of 150 or so) offering students an education in business and management – a subject area that attracts the third highest proportion of students of colour, only after Medicine and Law.
Now consider that the Business School is often considered a cash-making branch of the higher education sector. ‘Profits’ that are accrued through student fees and low-cost teaching are used by university managers to subsidise other departments where student numbers are falling or research funding is at risk. The way Business Management departments make cash surpluses is through a variety of means including: a) being able to recruit some of the largest cohorts of students across disciplines, b) driving down the cost of teaching through some of the poorest student to staff ratios, c) running high-cost executive degrees such as the MBA. To reiterate: business management is an academic field that represents one of the biggest and most lucrative disciplines in academia and it attracts some of the largest numbers of students of colour in the U.K.
The irony is that despite being part of the largest and most profitable departments across academic disciplines, students of colour in business management are still less likely to gain a 2:1 or a First class degree. The ‘attainment gap’ that refers to differences in degree obtainment is differentiated across subject areas (science and medicine have nominal or virtually no gap, while the humanities, social sciences and arts have significant gaps of up to 30%). This gap exists despite students of colour being enrolled onto degree courses with the same qualifications as their white counterparts.
To make sense of this gap, it is important to contextualise it. Students of colour fair reasonably well at primary and middle school, at times outperforming white cohorts. Further, not all students of colour are equal. Black Caribbean school pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded from school compared to any other ethnic cohorts. Chinese students excel at primary school, while white British and black Caribbean students are less likely to reach the expected standard for reading, writing and maths. This uneven educational landscape, that is regionalised by a North-South divide for white students, and consistently penalises black Caribbean pupils, continues to discriminate against students of colour when they reach university.
The second issue impacting students of colour is that upon graduation they are less likely to be recruited by organizations that pay high salaries. The attainment gap has something to do with this. If graduates of colour on the whole are obtaining less 2:1s and Firsts, then it follows that high-salary employment will become more elusive to these graduates. Notwithstanding this, employment issues impact all graduates of colour - overall career development and progression are also limited for workers racialised other than white. Universities shudder at their poor ‘employability’ measures for graduates of colour. They shudder because graduates of colour often leave university to join a family business, to start their own business or accept precarious forms of employment in the form of short-term contracts or self-employment within a franchise. All these types of jobs do not feature in categories of ‘employment’ used by government stats. So, if universities can’t measure PoC employment, how can they account for it when it comes to them showing employability rates post graduation?
Instead of acknowledging employment is racialised and therefore inequitable, some universities would rather claim students of colour have worse employability than white graduates. This assertion fails to look at the structural forms of discrimination graduates of colour encounter when they leave university; it also overlooks the tenacity, determination and networks that students of colour possess in the face of a system working hard to keep them out.
Let’s get back to the business management discipline. Racialised inequalities exist alongside an economic system that extracts profits (fees) from students of colour and rewards white cohorts in other disciplines through better degree obtainment and better employability.
Students of colour at business management departments are literally de-graded when they graduate while their fees are accepted to support parts of the institution that favour white privilege.
The Business School is at the nexus of what Shirley Anne Tate has termed: the neo-liberal ‘post-race’ university. This kind of university decontextualizes inequality so that white privilege succeeds and the false logic of ‘the market’ continues to extract a surplus at the cost of students of colour degree obtainment and their graduate careers. One would (like to) imagine that with the highest proportion of students of colour, Business Schools and Management departments would be at the forefront of pushing through a more equitable programme of study. One would also hope, that with so much research on ‘managing diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, Business Schools would be making a strong management case to extinguish inequalities wherever they are occurring in universities. But this is not the case, and business tends to ignore the politics of its own practice rather than engage with them.
When we exchange the term ‘anti-racist’ for the word ‘diversity’ we extinguish the hope for a structural analysis of white privilege and promote a cynical numbers game that looks at the number of brown faces on a degree programme prospectus. We also deny students of colour, along with academics of colour, the validation that they exist in a system that ignores black excellence and rewards white privilege. It is not good enough that business management departments recruit well from communities of colour. It is not good enough that the business management field promotes the idea of ‘diversity’. It will only be good enough when students of colour are awarded with the same opportunities to succeed, graduate and work compared to anyone else living and studying in the U.K. To get there, we need to understand why the attainment gap exists in business management departments, we need to promote an anti-racist framework for addressing inequalities for students of colour, we need to rely less on 'diversity' frameworks, we need students and academics of colour to set and manage the agenda for equality.