Man illiterate until he was 18 becomes Cambridge Uni’s youngest ever Black professor

A man who only learned how to read and write when he was 18 and could not speak until he was 11 has become Cambridge University’s youngest Black professor.

Therapists had predicted Jason Arday would need lifelong support in an assisted living home.

However he proved everybody wrong and next month will start at the University of Cambridge as Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education.

At the age of 37 he is the youngstest Black professor, and just one of five at the university.

In the UK there are 155 Black university professors, out of 23,000.

He told My London: “My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratise higher education.

“Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally.

“Obviously unpicking a long history in which Cambridge has been, or seemed, very exclusive is difficult.

“There are now lots of pockets of good practice, but culturally this needs to extend throughout the entire university.”

As a child Arday was diagnosed with global developmental delay, which affected his ability to learn how to talk and read.

Until he was 11 he spoke through sign language and it wasn’t until he was in his teens that he became able to read and write.

Arday then went on to become a PE teacher after studying at the University of Surrey.

At age 27 he wrote on his bedroom wall at his parents’ house: “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.”

He remembers talking to his friend and college mentor Sandro Sandi who installed the confidence in him that he could do this. “Looking back, that was when I first really believed in myself.

“A lot of academics say they stumbled into this line of work, but from that moment I was determined and focused – I knew that this would be my goal. On reflection, this is what I meant to do.”

“I had no idea what I was doing”

He said: “When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not have a mentor and no one ever showed me how to write.

“Everything I submitted got violently rejected. The peer review process was so cruel, it was almost funny, but I treated it as a learning experience and, perversely, began to enjoy it.”

In the day, he was working as a PE teacher, and by night he wrote papers and studied, learning texts verbatim.

He went on to become an acclaimed professor with two master’s degrees and a PhD in educational studies from Liverpool John Moores University.

In 2015, alongside studying for his PhD, Arday co-edited a groundbreaking report for the Runnymede Trust, ‘Aiming Higher’, about racial and ethnic inequalities in British Universities, and then in 2018 he published his first solo paper.

The same year, he successfully secured a Senior Lectureship at Roehampton University before moving on to Durham University, where he was an Associate Professor of Sociology.

Following this, Arday went on to another prestigious professorship at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education, making him, at the time, one of the youngest professors in the UK.

He is now a leading academic writing on the experiences of Black students in education and the long-term impacts of racial discrimination in education.

He has also written books including works that explore the roots of structural racism in higher education, and the ‘Cool Britannia’ phenomenon of the 1990s from an ethnic minority perspective.