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Power List 2018: The question of race

Powerlist judge Judy Friedberg takes a look at the way the experiences of students of colour have returned to prominence in 2018
This article is more than 5 years old

Judy Friedberg is a former universities editor of The Guardian.

There has been a growing, if uneasy, recognition over the past year that students of colour are not getting a fair deal at UK universities.

It’s not that we’ve just found out about the “BME attainment gap”. As far back as 2007, a government study of 65,000 students confirmed that being from a minority ethnic community is “statistically significant in explaining final attainment”.

The fact is, students of colour are less likely than their white peers to get first or upper second-class degrees, even when you allow for other factors such as socio-economic background, whether they live at home, and whether their parents went to university. Wonkhe was kind enough to break down the most recent HESA stats for us in this report.

You’d think this would be alarming to those entrusted with their education. Yet for years, as Amatey Doku writes, “black students’ experiences have been routinely minimised, dismissed, or ignored by those able to make change”.

“Woke” but for marketing reasons?

Why are universities now “getting woke” to how they are letting students down? Because of the fight for customers in the cut-throat marketplace of higher education.

Universities have realised that Snapchat alone cannot put bums on seats. And no matter how much you spend, marketing won’t fix what other customers say about you. If universities cannot rise to the challenge and give fee-paying students what they are owed, private providers will step in to do so – indeed, some already have.

So how does the sector plan to meet the needs of the “non-traditional” students they are now so eager to woo, especially those who come from backgrounds unfamiliar to most university staff?

This report from the Higher Education Academy points to four key interventions that have been shown to have an impact:

  • organisational change
  • proper data collection
  • student support
  • a more inclusive curriculum.

Decolonising the curriculum

While university planning offices, welfare services and HR departments are being left in peace by the media to get their heads around the first three tasks, the same cannot be said of efforts to reform reading lists.

The right-wing media has wilfully misunderstood the campaign to decolonise curriculums, and demonised its advocates. The most graphic recent example is that of Cambridge student Lola Olufemi. When she called for the inclusion of more literature from the global south, the Telegraph boomed inaccurately: “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors.”

Against this unpromising backdrop, Birmingham City University professor Kehinde Andrews and a team of staff launched a black studies MA last September.

The move was welcomed by black intellectuals such as the veteran “scholar-activist” Gus John who wrote: “I believe that the initiative BCU has taken to build a black studies programme is commendable, not least because of its potential to work with other disciplines to review the representation of African people in the evolution of knowledge.”

By the time the course launched, Andrews already had a media profile. He’d come in for a flood of media abuse in 2016 when he insisted UK universities were “no less institutionally racist than the police force”. The Sunday Times piece was headlined: Universities ‘like slave plantations’. But Andrews was unruffled by the hysteria.

He explained in the Guardian:

The headline suggests I was somehow comparing the experiences of the enslaved to those of staff and students on campus. That would have been not only absurd but also offensive, considering the history of unspeakable horror of the transatlantic slave trade. The metaphor of the plantation was not used to explore the experiences in the university but the regressive role it plays in society

Since then, he has become a go-to commentator on race. Gus John says:

As a public intellectual, Kehinde’s writing and appearances in the media, as well as his presentations at meetings and conferences on social policy, help to shape debate and to provide a counter narrative to the neo-liberal consensus which is too infrequently challenged in the public sphere. His contribution to the decolonising debate, to critical race studies, to the intersection of race and other historical forms of oppression, to the pitfalls of identity politics and to rethinking Europe is not only timely, it is for me a fine example of what black intellectuals should be about, especially in British and European higher education.

Black academia created another stir this year with the launch of a book called Inside the Ivory Tower, Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia, edited by Deborah Gabriel and Shirley Anne Tate. Its format – first-person experiences of black women academics – packed quite a punch. “I’ve been mistaken for the coffee lady” was the Guardian’s headline on its review.

Creativity from diversity

The media is also starting to work out that becoming more inclusive means giving a platform to a wider range of writers. Gal-dem, a collective of young women journalists of colour, were given the opportunity to edit the Guardian’s Weekend magazine last month. The content was vibrant and extraordinary – I urge you to follow this link – and generated huge excitement on social media.

Afterwards, the editors of each publication reflected on the experience:

Working on gal-dem’s takeover of Weekend magazine,” they wrote, “was a clear demonstration of the power of championing marginalised voices. The feedback has been overwhelming and the fact that sales spiked significantly are both clear reminders of the fact that diversity breeds creativity.

Exciting, but for the time being, a one-off.

In universities, it is precisely the same hunger to mute the voices of the establishment and turn up the volume on the marginalised that is driving activists to call for curricula to be decolonised. The sector needs to put all our energies behind making sure they succeed – and that their victories are embedded in what students learn in the future.

We’ll know we’ve got it right when curricula chime with the life experiences of the entire university community.

But that’s just part of the picture: universities must ensure that teachers and, especially, leaders are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds. And we must urgently commit ourselves to eliminating a gap in achievement and life chances based on ethnicity.


Find the 2018 HE Power List in full here.


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