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UEL chair: set up student fund with money from slave trade

Students in class

Universities should set up a £100 million fund for Black Asian Minority Ethnic students (BAME) from the money repatriated from the donations given to higher education institutions during the slave trade. That’s the call from the chair of the University of East London’s Board of Governors (UEL), Geoff Thompson.

Mr Thompson made his intervention during the Committee of University Chairs 2018 autumn plenary, ‘Future direction and purpose’, in London.

“The University of Glasgow has already taken the lead on this important and defining issue. Its report of a fortnight ago makes clear that the University received an estimated £200 million during the slave trade,” he said. “In the middle of Black History month, in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal this summer, it seems prescient, ethical and right for our committee to support and help Glasgow, and others, seize this historic opportunity to invest in those who cannot afford or cannot see themselves graduating with a life-changing qualification.”

Universities in the UK have received Freedom of Information requests to make public whether they received money from the slave trade between the 16th and 19th century. Some have responded by saying they did not exist as a university during that period. But Mr Thompson argues that they may have existed as a pre-cursor to officially being recognised as a university. For example, he said, even though it is a post-1992 institution, the University of Derby was founded in 1851 as the Derby Diocesan Institution for the Training of Schoolmistresses. Figures included in The Sunday Times' latest Good University Guide show that 16 of the 20 Russell Group universities are among the worst in the country for social diversity.

“We need to reverse this as a matter of urgency. Every university has historians, archivists and researchers who can help institutions inform them about their past,” said Mr Thompson. “It is about how seriously we take the past to inform our future, and what we can do to help change lives. Education does changes lives. For the first time this year, London momentarily took over New York as the world’s murder capital. We know that education can change the way our young people think about themselves, what is possible and how they can get out of the cycle of crime, violence and deprivation. I am calling on all my fellow chairs and all institutions to take this ethical ground-breaking stand.”

The FOI request also asks universities to disclose the ethnic make-up of their governance board, their chair and their chancellor to see how representative HEIs are in leadership roles.

Mr Thompson, who is the only black chair of a university, said, “The latest figures show that of the 19,000 professors in the UK only 115 are black. The prime minister launched a race disparity audit. The government has recently challenged business to reveal the ethnic pay gap. So, it is only right that we, as those responsible for governance and deciding top appointments, are properly reflected in the highest echelons of higher education so we are held responsible for stimulating and influencing change.”

The Times has reported that just 11 per cent of history undergraduates come from BAME backgrounds, and almost 94 per cent of their teachers are white. A third of BAME historians say they have experienced bias and discrimination, according to the paper. Mr Thompson said this confirmed that action was needed to improve the experience of minority academics, and that governor chairs needed to ensure that universities were proactive in safeguarding equality, fairness and progression in public and private work places.

“Research suggests that if we included full BAME representation across our labour market, we would add an estimated £24 billion a year to the UK’s GDP,” said Mr Thompson. “Brexit, huge changes in technology, and our ageing workforce mean that it is now or never. The business case has been made. Why are we wasting people’s talents and skills? Where are the BAME representatives in the FTSE 100 boardrooms? This has been the case for decades, and we need to not only acknowledge we have a problem, but we need to lead, act and implement change, change which helps our country.”

Universities have until the 7 November to respond to the FOI request.