Engaging In The Conversation

As part of the University’s commitment to understand and tackle racism, CONNECTED speaks to Professor Uma Kambhampati about her own experiences of discrimination, as well as the initiatives she’s leading to understand race equality among her students.

Professor Kambhampati, Head of Reading’s School of Politics, Economics and International Relations, moved to the UK in 1981 and now feels very much that the UK is her home. However, despite a generally positive experience since moving here, she has suffered a few, but nevertheless unforgiveable, incidents of racism.

Professor Kambhampati shares her story with CONNECTED because she believes it is important to engage in conversations about race. She said:

“The most important thing I’ve learnt is that there is no wrong question to ask – we all need to feel comfortable having these discussions, and so I am happy to be sharing my story as part of the efforts to start these conversations at Reading.”

Feeling different

Professor Kambhampati lived in India until she was 17 years old, moving to Britain for her father’s job with the civil service in London. She describes moving to the UK as a complete culture shock.

She said: “I’d been at the same school in India since I was eight years old, so I had to leave very good friends behind. I then arrived at my new school part-way through A-levels, and despite it being welcoming, it was hard to make friends as everyone was already in friendship groups. I also struggled to engage in my new surroundings because the way people interacted was different and I didn’t know the popular culture of the time, such as TV programmes or music.

“Despite initially struggling to adjust to life in the UK, I never felt those struggles were due to my race. After school I went to Cambridge for my undergraduate, master’s and PhD courses, and it wasn’t until I moved to Norwich that I began to feel really quite different.

“I had my first lectureship at the University of East Anglia which was itself very inclusive and diverse. But living in Norwich as a city was much tougher than living in London or Cambridge. My first proper experience of racism was when I arranged to rent a flat in Norwich, but upon finding out I was Indian, they refused to let it to me.”

An accepting culture

Professor Kambhampati left Norwich to move closer to London for her husband’s job, and looking for a commutable town, she successfully applied for a lectureship in the Department of Economics at Reading in 1998.

Professor Kambhampati recalled: “I’ve had a fantastic experience at Reading. When I joined the department it wasn’t a close-knit community due to the number of people commuting in, and it was also quite male-dominated, however I have always felt it a comfortable place to be.

“I’ve never felt I was different to any of my colleagues at Reading. While there have been difficult times here, I truly don’t feel any of these arose from the fact I was Asian, or a woman. I think this is because of Reading’s culture. It has a really accepting, relatively gentle culture compared to many organisations and universities these days. There is much more space here for lots of different types of people to fit in and much less need for them to explain themselves.

“Reading’s culture therefore tends to attract a certain type of person, making it a wonderfully diverse and vibrant community.”

However, Professor Kambhampati stresses that there is certainly more that the University should be doing to support Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals.

“We have pretty standard and sometimes outdated policies when it comes to diversity and inclusion, although we are becoming more conscious of this now,” Professor Kambhampati said. “I also don’t think Reading does particularly well in terms of BAME representation at a staff level. However, it’s hard to blame the University when there are systemic issues at play here which impact on who comes to us for an interview. We still need to try though, of course.

“I think we’ve dealt with many of the student-related issues relatively well, for example, significant steps have been made on diagnosing the problem of underachievement amongst BAME students. But I’m not sure we’ve even begun to deal with the staff-related issues.

“I’m pleased that Professor Parveen Yaqoob, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Allan Laville, the Dean for Diversity & Inclusion at Reading, are undertaking a review to understand and address racial inequalities within the University. I hope that this review will bring some of the staff issues to the fore, as well as focusing on students.”

Driving change

Professor Kambhampati knows how important it is to feel no different to your peers, and is leading initiatives within her department to ensure her students don’t have to experience this at Reading.

She explained:

“I would like to understand how our BAME students feel in the Department of Economics and so we are currently undertaking a review of race equality amongst PhD students, with undergraduate, postgraduate taught and staff surveys to follow.

“We surveyed our students via a questionnaire, asking them to tell us about their experiences as BAME students at the University, and in the department in particular.

“They’ve told us about their relationships with other staff and students, and about how they experience their academic supervision. Generally, the feedback was really positive which is wonderful, however, I’m also grateful for the negative comments which show us the areas we need to improve on. One individual suggested we should highlight the diversity of our community more on our website, and another felt that while the student community was very diverse, this was lacking in terms of staff.

“We will implement what we can locally, however, our work will also fit into the wider review that the University is conducting,” Professor Kambhampati said.

“It’s absolutely right that we work towards the bigger picture, but as we have a lot of BAME students in our department it also feels right that we take a local approach to these issues, to see what we can do to understand our students’ experiences and to see if we can improve them.”

Find out more about the review Reading is undertaking to understand and address racial inequalities within the University.