STEM sector must step up and end unacceptable disparities in Black staff and students academic progression and success

25 March 2021

People from Black backgrounds in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) higher education in the UK have poorer degree outcomes and lower rates of academic career progression than other ethnic groups, research for the Royal Society shows.

Two reports published today using Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) data lay out the "unacceptable" inequalities in UK STEM higher education over the past 10 years, and in the pool of UK-based researchers eligible for the Society’s own early career fellowship grants. 

The proportion of Black students entering undergraduate and postgraduate education has increased over the past decade, as it has for other minority ethnic groups, but they are leaving STEM in greater numbers at all stages of the career pipeline.

The Royal Society is convening a roundtable with representatives from the higher education sector, funders, and diversity and inclusion groups, to discuss the reports and what action is needed to close the attainment gap.

President of the Royal Society, Sir Adrian Smith, said: "Talented Black people are not finding science careers in UK academia and that is unacceptable. The reasons are complex and have been much discussed but we have not made enough progress.  

"Our reports show that Black people are more likely to drop out of science at all points of the career path. It is time that the whole science community comes together to find out why and put it right.

"We cannot fix this overnight but we have to start making more progress.

"These reports highlight the challenges faced by Black researchers, but we also need to tackle the wider inequalities which exist across our society and prevent talented people from pursuing careers in science."

Diversity in UK STEM academia

The first report Ethnicity STEM data for students and staff in higher education was compiled by Jisc using diversity statistics from 2007/08 to 2018/19.

There is significant variation in rates of progression and outcomes across ethnicity groups, though Black staff and students have consistently poorer outcomes than white and Asian students.

The report identifies several persistent trends which should be researched further, including: 

  • Higher non-completion rates among Black STEM students - In 2017/18 , the non-completion rate among Black STEM first degree students was 4.7% and 6.3% among postgraduates. This compared to undergraduate and postgraduate dropout rates of 2.9% and 4.4%, respectively, for Asian students and 2.7% and 3.8% for white students.
  • Disparities in degree outcomes for Black students – White students in 2018/19 were twice as likely as Black students to graduate with first class honours – 35.7% compared to 17.9%. Black students were roughly three times more likely than white students to leave their first degree with a third – 9.5% of Black students compared to 3.2%. 
  • Variation in progression through STEM study and careers across ethnicity groups - In 2018/19, 18.7% of academic staff in STEM were from ethnic minority groups, 13.2% were Asian compared to 1.7% who were Black. This is a pronounced drop off from postgraduate studies, where 7.1% of entrants are Black and 11.9% are Asian.

At senior levels, just 3.5% of Black academic staff hold a Professor post, compared to 6.6% of Asian staff, and 11.9% of white staff.

Within groups there is variation across, subject, gender, age, nationality, institution type and postcode, demonstrating the diminishing value of reporting broad categories like Black, Asian and minority ethnicity (BAME).

Dr Mark Richards, Senior Lecturer and Head of Outreach in the Physics Department at Imperial College London and a member of the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee, said: "This data is so potent because it looks at these trends over ten years and shows where there might be systemic issues at play and where collective action is required.

"We need targeted interventions across the pipeline; raising aspirations in primary schools, bringing more clarity to prospective PhD students in terms of career pathways, and supporting existing Black researchers and academics to achieve their full potential.

"If we’re serious about system change, we might not see meaningful results for a generation, though this can be a turning point."

Diversity in the Royal Society’s UK early career fellowship grants

The Jisc report calls for funders to undertake detailed diversity profiles of their grants and the pool of researchers eligible to apply for them.

The second report published today, produced by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) aims to address this for postdoctoral researchers in the UK eligible for the Royal Society’s early-career fellowship programmes. 

From the potential pool of 13,405 eligible postdoctoral researchers, around 42% are female; 29% are from a minority ethnic group of all nationalities – but only around 2% from a Black background.

Of the 5,070 eligible UK nationals, just 1% are from Black backgrounds, 7.5% are from Asian backgrounds and, overall, 12% from any ethnic minority background.

Comparison against the applications from UK nationals that the Royal Society received for these early career fellowships between 2018-2020, published separately, shows they do not represent this eligible pool: 

  • Just 8% of applicants to the University Research Fellowships and 11.5% of Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships were from individuals who identified as from an ethnic minority background
  • In the last three years there were no applications from Black British researchers to the Society’s prestigious University Research Fellowship scheme (excluding Sir Henry Dale Fellowships)

Next steps

As well as the roundtables and work across the sector, the Society is commissioning further work on socioeconomic inequalities. It is also looking to improve diversity of its grant applications by running networking events and workshops, with partners, for eligible early career researchers from ethnic minority backgrounds and facilitating peer support and mentorship from existing grant holders. 

"As someone outside of STEM, it’s clear how important sponsors are when embarking on an academic career," said Sandra Kerr CBE, Race Equality Director with Business in the Community and a member of the Society’s Diversity Committee.

"That person who can help to open doors and support your applications and ideas is so important, and may be one reason we don’t see so many young Black people in academia."

The Society supports two existing mentoring partnerships, Destination STEMM and In2Science, aimed at increasing STEM higher education participation among Black secondary school students and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds respectively.