Intersecting Inequalities

(Editor: The recent stirrings at the NUS over Malia Bouattia had us looking back at over similar furore in the last year, and we recalled there was an article we had never put up for some reason that still felt relevant now)

Recently comments have been made by the director of OFFA – Prof Les Ebdon – concerning the access young from poorer backgrounds have to higher education. The concern over the lack of students from lower socio-economic is one issue of a wider concern over access to higher education and the levels of participation in university by various groups. We’ve seen in the past couple months the issue of women in Stem subjects being highlighted by the comments made by Prof Tim Hunt and before that the actions of Goldsmith’s Diversity officer- Bahar Mustafa – brought attention to how minority groups are affected by university life.

Within this post I want to make two points: firstly making a short detour to look at how racism is being defined by the likes of Bahar and then a slightly data heavy analysis of how various groups are represented in universities and the labour force. On the second point we will simply put Bahar and Ebdon’s claims about the systemic identity discrimination in this country to the test: are their concerns reflected in education and occupation? Is it the lack of social mobility and class that is determining who has the opportunities in Britain today? And ergo: which are the privileges of most pressing concern: those of class privilege or gender/race/orientation privilege?

In fighting racism Bahar seems to have lost sight of what racism means; racism and institutional racism are not the same, the Met suffered from institutional racism in the 80s where racism really was empowered by the structure of the police but that is a different thing from many other instances of racism. Racism does not require a privileged power structure behind it in order for the perpetrators actions to be racist – this is the point Bahar, possibly wilfully, possibly naively, ignores when she stated:

“I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender and therefore women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist, since we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”

Racism does not describe that, the OED puts it as so: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. The manipulation of the meaning of the term is easily understandable: set it up so one can discriminate on terms that others are prevented from doing so. This manipulation, however, seems to now be a definition accepted among many students and staff alike: you have the definition “average” people use and then, for likes of Bahar, we have the “academic” definition.

I find the requirement for racism to take on another definition among “academics” as, to put it plainly, bizarre. There is already a term in use for what they want to say: institutional racism, or structural racism, definitions that make it clear that we are discussing racism + privilege/power and not just racism which can come from anyone of any colour. Individuals from ethnic minorities can, and in the UK recently have, take part in racially motivated attacks. If attackers who use race as a basis for their attacks are not racist…then I give up and I’m fucking off to Luxembourg. To point to something that some would rather we forget about: the scandal of Rotherham shows how being in a minority ethnic group does not mean they cannot be racist, white teenage girls were specifically targeted on the basis of their ethnicity. I don’t wish to try and be emotive but what other way is there of demonstrating the fact that racism is not unique to a majority ethnicity group or even the most wealthy and influential group.

Which brings on to the other point: wealth and influence…or class if you will. In the list of struggles Bahar said she was involved in there was one left til last: Class. There was no doubt in my mind when watching this that she was an advocate of class struggle: I have no doubt that she wants to fight the class structure that exists today in capitalist Britain (and all the things that go with it: privatisation, austerity, so on and so forth). But for someone who is so concerned over whether a person’s identity allows them to be involved in the affairs of racial, gender, and sexual struggle I wonder how far a middle class London university student extends this requirement to class struggle? Will she let someone attend a student focus group on the issues facing students from council homes and low income families if they come from a half a million pound home in some leafy south east suburb? The answer, surprise surprise, is yes….because she is a student from that half a million pound home.

Now, I don’t see any issue with having individuals campaign on behalf of groups that themselves are not part of. One of the most impressive MPs of the latter half of the 20th century demonstrates this perfectly: Tony Benn, an aristocrat who had the law changed so he could ditch his hereditary peerage in order to become a member of the commons. Here is an individual who came from the upper echelons of British society but abandoned them in order to work for the rights of his nation’s working class, a hero of the Labour left and quite rightly so.

This sets up the contrast I want to consider: is identity or class the most significant factor in determining what one can feasibly achieve? There is another aspect to such a consideration, that of culture, which can or can not be linked to one’s identity but – given the length of this piece – it is one I’d rather save for another time. The likes of Thomas Sowell have spent a great deal of time over the past decades pondering the importance of culture when individuals who identify with that culture make choices free of all restrictions, so if one wishes to see how key I feel culture is to determining the extent of an individual’s ability to move up in society then one need not look any further than Thomas Sowell.

For the contrast between identity and social class we can break identity down into separate parts and consider the access these varied groups have to two major elements: education and occupation. I.e. are the claims of Bahar when it comes to our society’s systemic racism, sexism and homophobia reflected in education and the labour market?

Let’s take sexuality, looking at a study featured in we can see quite how disadvantaged LGBT people are with respect to education:

Level of qualification (table 1) Heterosexual LGBT
Degree level qualification, or equivalent 21.9 33.3
Other higher education qualification 9.5 10.8
A level or equiv 14.9 15.4
O level, GCSE (A* to C) 21 17.6
Other 19.6 14.9
No qualifications 13.2 7.9
Employed (16-64) 68.6 71

Ah, what about occupations? In the work force LGBT people are surely disadvantaged once out of education into the real world:

Level of Employment (table 2) Heterosexaul LGBT
Managerial and professional occupations 30.6 42.1
Intermediate occupations 16.2 14.7
Routine and manual occupations 29.4 23

Hmmm…though this one isn’t as clear cut. Lesbians earn 8% more than their straight female counterparts, this however is down to predominantly the same reasons men earn more: lifestyle choices. Lesbians are less likely to leave the workforce or take up only part time work than their straight female counterparts largely down to lesbians being less likely to bring up children. Yet gay men earn 5% less than their straight male counterparts, while this article puts it down to “masculine traits” it may or may not be an accurate assessment. If by “masculine traits” the writer means taking up roles in male dominated professions like engineering then he is right (gay men are less likely to enter higher paying industries such as engineering for example – the same is true of women and this is one of the major factors of the pay gap: choice of industry – but within those industries gay men will still skew higher up the payscale as reflected in table 2) otherwise it seems like a bit of a lazy conclusion to what is an otherwise very interesting study.

So while education shows better levels of achievement by LGBT people the pay and occupation scale isn’t quite as clear cut. But, given both of these I fail to see the systemic oppression holding down those Bahar is claiming to defend – we certainly used to have discrimination in the workforce but we are now at least going in the right direction. If anything non-straight people are the ones performing better in education and straight people are under performing as per the population and we need to promote more straight people to go into uni in order to achieve the sort of equal distribution Bahar describes…just a thought. (Honestly ignore me, I’m crap for making recommendations on issues like this……which is probably true of everyone else as well come to think of it, my only recommendation of telling bureaucrats and state decision makers to fuck off doesn’t always go down well. Oh, the laughs we’ve had!)

So, what about colour, does coming from an ethnic minority put you at a disadvantage for education and occupation? Well, no with an ever so slight bias against white students; as a portion of the 18-29 populace (so that’s from me, 19, to Bahar, 27) whites are underrepresented. From being around 81/82% of the UK 18-29 population whites make up 77% of the UK student populace (note: this is UK domiciled students, international students have been excluded for obvious reasons), there is around a 5% shortfall made up by a greater representation of BME students. These numbers are like for like, the first is the of UK domiciled population as per the census and the second is of UK domiciled students (i.e. students in the UK who are from the UK). The difference is not large but is significant enough to warrant consideration.

However, what is most stark between white students and BME students is the choice of subjects, the numbers need little commentary to show the difference in choices:

Course Asian White Black Other (including mixed) Not known‡
All UK HE providers  
Medicine & dentistry 9465 7.59% 27255 3.00% 1170 1.50% 2520 4.38% 560 5.81%
Subjects allied to medicine 16885 13.54% 97300 10.70% 13295 16.99% 5230 9.10% 905 9.39%
Biological sciences 11870 9.52% 105235 11.57% 8110 10.37% 6585 11.45% 810 8.41%
Veterinary science 65 0.05% 3795 0.42% 5 0.01% 85 0.15% 20 0.21%
Agriculture & related subjects 155 0.12% 10090 1.11% 190 0.24% 175 0.30% 50 0.52%
Physical sciences 4085 3.27% 51475 5.66% 1335 1.71% 2260 3.93% 460 4.77%
Mathematical sciences 3980 3.19% 18565 2.04% 795 1.02% 1085 1.89% 210 2.18%
Computer science 8615 6.91% 36950 4.06% 4205 5.37% 2615 4.55% 485 5.03%
Engineering & technology 9645 7.73% 52560 5.78% 5040 6.44% 3785 6.58% 835 8.67%
Architecture, building & planning 2285 1.83% 16620 1.83% 1450 1.85% 1250 2.17% 180 1.87%
Total – Science subject areas 67050 53.75% 419840 46.17% 35600 45.50% 25590 44.51% 4505
Social studies 11420 9.16% 83815 9.22% 11265 14.40% 5960 10.37% 935 9.70%
Law 8065 6.47% 29770 3.27% 4605 5.89% 2855 4.97% 400 4.15%
Business & administrative studies 22230 17.82% 88810 9.77% 13345 17.06% 7025 12.22% 1075 11.16%
Mass communications & documentation 1615 1.29% 26235 2.89% 2580 3.30% 1885 3.28% 185 1.92%
Languages 3235 2.59% 61675 6.78% 1745 2.23% 3755 6.53% 700 7.27%
Historical & philosophical studies 1910 1.53% 44960 4.94% 1005 1.28% 2220 3.86% 560 5.81%
Creative arts & design 5095 4.08% 106080 11.67% 5330 6.81% 6450 11.22% 845 8.77%
Education 3970 3.18% 46115 5.07% 2640 3.37% 1625 2.83% 400 4.15%
Combined 145 0.12% 2035 0.22% 125 0.16% 125 0.22% 30 0.31%
Total – All subject areas 124735 909340 78240 57490   9635

Some of the subjects have been highlighted, this includes higher earning degrees (Law, medicine, engineering and business) and lower earning subjects (education, creative arts and design) where there is also a clear pattern of choice and/or acceptance rates between these different groups. In general whites are skewing towards lower earning degrees (education, historical and philosophical studies and the creative arts) and Asians to higher, other/mixed and blacks are more varied in subjects. Proportionally whites outnumber asians three (12% vs 4%) to one in the creative arts and asians outnumber whites nearly three (8% vs 3%) to one in medicine, in Law and business blacks and asians out number whites two to one.

Prof Ebdon, how do his claims stack up ?

Now, having gone through all that treacle regarding the demographics of it all I may appear to call it all BS. I have no reason, have never been given a good reason by anyone, as to why there needs to be a perfect representation of the populace in any setting, whether in politics, in education, in industry, in medicine, in any institution: I am yet to be given a good case for why we need to make its members a perfectly equal cross section of society. What I have been given a good reason to support is something that everyone does want for, at least, themselves: choice. Consider this: if when all other factors are controlled, perfectly equal access to education, a level playing field for entering a particular profession, and people are left to choose what they want to do would we then expect there to be a perfectly equal representation of a society in that area? No, we would expect to see people who wanted to go into that area, going into that area, it may or may not be a good representation of wider society but it could just as possibly be a skewed representation. While we must strive for everyone to start the race at the same start line we should not force the race in order to ensure they all finish at the same time, the same is true for demographical distributions within different areas. We should not arbitrarily decide the desired makeup of an aspect of society, we should remove legal obstacles to everyone being free to chose – put this way: remove segregation; legislation but don’t bring in quotas.

To put this all simply, if you want to address the sources of restriction on opportunity in this society, want to end the “oppression” that Bahar blathered on about in her 7 minute video, want to deal with the major factor that determines what people are able to achieve in their lives then start by  abandoning the identity politics bullcrap. She is right that there is division in Britain’s universities, she is one of the sources of it, she knows that class matters – she said it herself – yet this (to do what she so enjoys doing: identity) middle class 27 year old student who’s been insulated in academia and never had to consider the possibility of “responsibility” has helped foster an atmosphere of extremism that pushes out others who also care about the future facing many young working class Britons.

Gender, ethnic, and sexual identity circuses like Goldsmith’s have not completely sidelined the discussion of class and social mobility of British youths but a white straight working class lad from a council estate would on the grounds of Bahar’s rhetoric and reasoning be more privileged than she. It seems very easy to get wrapped up in the heady heights of academic twaddle; the vehicles of oppression get obsessed over until it all descends into the sort of absurdity where we end up – as we have done here – having activists taking ultimately racist and sexist measures in order to help fight racism and sexism. The students of these studies become emboldened by what they read and discuss with their fellow campaigners, the importance they feel their cause has has only ever grown. Do we now need to all take a step back here? What is the real prevalent systemic discrimination in Britain today? Racism, sexism, homophobia? Or is it class? Because right now the one type of person who, by all measures, is least represented in those top high achieving groups is a white straight male working class lad – lowest level of education. Am I free to point this out though? Well, yes. But will I be free of being labelled Tory scum, racist, sexist and all manner of other terms for pointing to this? We can only wait and see.


Laurence Smith


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