A renowned sociologist who was unable to read or write until the age of 18, and was working part-time in Sainsbury’s less than eight years ago, is to become the youngest black professor ever appointed at the University of Cambridge.
Prof Jason Arday, 37, is a highly respected scholar of race, inequality and education, yet at three years old he was diagnosed with global development delay and autism spectrum disorder, and he did not learn to speak until he was 11.
Next month he will take up the role of professor of sociology of education at Cambridge, and he hopes his extraordinary story will inspire others from under-represented backgrounds to progress into higher education.
Arday will be building on his earlier work at the universities of Durham and Glasgow, addressing the paucity of black and minority ethnic people in higher education, their under-representation in academic careers, and the challenge of creating more equitable educational experiences and outcomes for all.
“My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratise higher education,” he said. “Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally.”
He added: “Talking about it is one thing; doing it is what matters. Cambridge is already making significant changes and has achieved some notable gains in attempting to diversify the landscape, but there is so much more to be done – here and across the sector.”
Arday was born and raised in Clapham, south London, and was one of four children. Until the age of 11 he used sign language, and much of his childhood was spent with speech and language therapists. His family were told it was likely he would need lifelong support, but he defied all expectations.
After gaining two GCSEs in PE and textiles, Arday studied for a BTec at college, then completed his first degree in PE and education studies, after which he did two master’s qualifications, a PGCE to become a PE teacher, and a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University. He funded his studies by working part-time at Sainsbury’s and Boots.
Ten years ago, while studying for his PhD, he wrote a set of personal goals on his mother’s bedroom wall. The third on his list read: “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.” On 6 March, that dream will become a reality. “As optimistic as I am, there’s just no way I could have thought that would have happened,” he said. “If I was a betting person, the odds on it were so long. It’s just mad.”
The message of his story for other young people from under-represented backgrounds is that “everything is possible”, Arday said. “I knew I didn’t necessarily have huge amounts of talent, but I knew how badly I wanted it and I knew how hard I wanted to work.”
It should not, however, be just down to individual endeavour – the system had to change too, he said. “At Cambridge there’s been some really, really useful and powerful pockets of good practice. But there’s still lots of areas of development, as there is across the sector.
“A big part of the sector’s problem is that it does things in a very unsustainable way. It often leans on the labour of black and ethnic minority professionals and academics to do this labour unremunerated and unrecognised.”
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Instead, there should be collective responsibility, Arday said, and those working to advance equality, diversity and inclusion should be properly supported and paid. He also highlighted BBC research from 2018 which found that black and ethnic minority academics were being paid less than their white counterparts, with white academics receiving average salaries of £52,000 and black academics £38,000.
“The final thing is recognising how violent some of these spaces can be,” he said, “and decision-makers recognising that to be a serious challenge towards the mental health and psychological wellbeing of black and ethnic minority people, particularly women of colour, and more specifically black women in the sector, who to be quite honest are treated differently. I think that is a stain on the sector, and that’s something we collectively need to think about, how we do better.”
Arday said black women were among the lowest paid in the sector, and out of 24,000 professors in the UK, just over 160 were black and just over 50 were black women. If things were going to change, he said, “it’s going to take a sustained commitment by institutions to really think about how they engage with the politics of race”.
Prof Bhaskar Vira, the pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Cambridge, said: “Jason Arday is an exceptional scholar of race, inequality and education. He will contribute significantly to Cambridge’s research in this area and to addressing the under-representation of people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those from black, Asian, and other minority ethnic communities.
“His experiences highlight the barriers faced by many under-represented groups across higher education and especially at leading universities. Cambridge has a responsibility to do everything it can to address this by creating academic spaces where everyone feels they belong.”