Scotland takes 'too few' black students

SCOTTISH university bosses have been asked by the Government's race equality watchdog to explain why there are so few black students on the nation's campuses.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) says it is "concerning" that Afro-Caribbean students make up on average just 1.4% of those in higher education in Scotland, dropping to 0.3% at some institutions.

The same ethnic group makes up 2% of the UK population and campaigners last night criticised Scottish universities for what they claimed was a lack of commitment to the Afro-Caribbean community.

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Students also welcomed the investigation by the commission, claiming black students face barriers in the higher education system.

According to the most recent official statistics available – for the year 2006/07 – the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in Glasgow recorded no students of black African, black Caribbean or other black origin, while the University of Glasgow, the UHI Millennium Institute and the Glasgow School of Art had black populations of just 0.3%.

Robert Gordon University had the highest proportion of black students, at 5.3%, which a spokeswoman attributed to a high number of African nationals taking up courses in oil and gas studies.

The University of Edinburgh has 1% of students defined as African, Caribbean or "black other", St Andrews 0.7%, Aberdeen University 0.9%, Dundee University 3.4% and Stirling 0.4%.

Although only 0.16% of the population of Scotland is black, the EHRC insists that higher education institutions should live up to the UK figure of 2% because they attract students from all over Britain.

The Race Equality Duty code of practice, which applies to all public authorities, says universities should monitor proportions of ethnic minorities and take action to promote themselves to under-represented communities.

A spokesman for the commission said the figures were "concerning", and officials would meet Universities Scotland on Thursday "to see if there are issues with under-representation of black students and whether there is a pattern".

He added no official investigation would happen at this stage, but they would look into whether anything should be done.

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The numbers of other ethnic minorities in Scottish universities, such as Indian and Pakistani students, are closer to the proportions in the UK population.

Chinese students are best represented in institutions north of the border, with 4,690 people, or 1.9%, studying across all 20 universities – almost five times the proportion of the Chinese population in the UK.

Dave Lewin, NUS Scotland's black students' officer, welcomed the move.

He said: "We know that black students face barriers not only accessing higher education but also in continuing with their studies."

Rama Ousta, chief executive of the Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure in Scotland (Bemis), said: "There is a lack of commitment from universities in taking positive action to improve the attendance of black students.

"Universities think race equality is about numbers rather than supporting students. There is an issue of under-representation, but it's important we don't just count numbers. A strategy needs to be deployed to change the culture rather than a short-term fix."

He also criticised the EHRC for not being more pro-active about the problem, and accused it of being "out of touch" with ethnic minority communities. He said: "The EHRC come along now and then and discuss these things, but they should have been in touch with us and we could tell them about the problems people face."

A spokesman for Universities Scotland said he was "delighted" to meet the commission, but did not think there was a huge problem.

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He said: "Everywhere in the UK there is under-representation of black African and black Caribbean students. It's not as obvious in Scotland because we don't have a high Afro-Caribbean population in Scotland.

A spokesman said: "We should never be complacent and run a number of schemes to attract students from under-represented groups."

However, he added he did not believe in having a target of 2%, especially since Scotland has a smaller black population.

But he added: "I don't think anybody should be working towards racial quotas; it's about recognising whether anything is not good enough. It's not a numbers game."

The RSAMD said it now had three black students enrolled on courses.

A spokeswoman said: "We are a small, specialist institution with students from 40 countries. The academy has always encouraged diversity."

A spokesman for the University of Glasgow also said the situation had improved, and 2008/09 figures showed 1.42% of students classified themselves as black.

He added: "The University of Glasgow has a number of initiatives including scholarship schemes for students from sub-Saharan Africa."

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The Glasgow School of Art said its total number of ethnic minority students was now 12% of the student community, but it declined to give the figures for black students alone.

A spokesman from the UHI Millennium Institute

said: "We have very little student accommodation, so we recruit mainly from our own geographic catchment area."