Decolonising the university: a new student’s guide to campus activism

In March 2015, a protester named Chumani Maxwele threw a bucket of faeces over a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, outside the University of Cape Town. The fallout sparked further demonstrations by students in South Africa, spreading to the UK and, before long, campuses across the world.

What became the Rhodes Must Fall movement was by no means the beginning of anti-racism campaigns among the student community, but it did mark a significant shift in the narrative surrounding colonisation – and the historical context many university degrees are rooted in.

In June, it was finally announced that a long-contested statue of Rhodes outside Oxford University’s Oriel College would be taken down. The move signified a real moment of victory for equality campaigners – as well as further proof of the power of the student body in inciting change.

Oxford’s U-turn was influenced by the wider Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which have shone a spotlight on systemic problems with diversity. Combined with student-led decolonisation campaigns such as UCL’s Why is My Curriculum White? and the University of Huddersfield’s Broaden My Bookshelf, this activism is finally filtering through to university curricula. Increasing numbers of staff and students are questioning the lack of content from black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) writers, as well as LGBT+ authors, on degree course reading lists and in libraries – and universities are listening.

And yet stark inequalities remain in the BAME attainment gap and a lack of diversity within the university staff body. According to research by the University and College Union last year, 93% of university professors in the UK are white, with black academics particularly underrepresented.

“The changes have been positive, but there’s still a long way to go,” says Fope Olaleye, the National Union of Students black students’ officer. In her role championing diversity and inclusivity on campus, Olaleye takes part in campaign work and staff training workshops countrywide. Where once these events had just a handful of attendees, now they’re packed out, she says.

“It’s clear that universities are becoming more willing to have difficult conversations about race and inequality,” she says, but there is a big difference between proactively supporting positive change and ticking boxes. “Decolonisation isn’t just about slapping a couple more BAME authors on a reading list, it’s about transformative change. It’s about asking questions such as: how do we learn? How do we run our lectures and seminars? How do students engage with our tutors? Is the way we teach great for disabled students? Can they access the rooms?”

A new concern is that the coronavirus pandemic will add to existing challenges faced by marginalised student groups. An inquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year found about a quarter of BAME students (including non-British white students) had experienced racial harassment on campus, and anecdotally Olaleye believes the problem has heightened, especially for Asian students. “The troubling thing is that most students don’t have enough trust in their institutions to report incidences in the first place,” she adds.

“The pandemic will accentuate structural inequalities that already exist,” agrees Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham. Bhopal urges students “to speak out and continue to fight for issues of social justice”, but cautions that this shouldn’t be seen as their responsibility alone.

She has called for university funding to be tied to institutional efforts to address the underrepresentation of BAME staff – but notes that students can support the change by joining uni groups that campaign for such initiatives. “The student voice on these committees can be hugely powerful and as such they can demand change to make a difference,” she says. “It’s important for everyone to continue to disrupt, dismantle and question inequalities, and make people feel uncomfortable, and make them think about their own privilege,” says Bhopal. “Only then can we move towards thinking about a socially just society.”

Campaigns explained

Decolonising the university
This is a call for universities to equip students with the skills to think critically about where knowledge comes from. This means understanding that it’s not objective, but rather shaped by the experiences and nationalities of the people who produced it. Fope Olaleye of the NUS says: “A lot of these conversations will be framed around supporting marginalised students or students of colour, but decolonising the learning experience will be beneficial for everyone.”

Broadening the bookshelf
This began as a campaign to increase the range of books in university libraries and on curriculums by marginalised authors. Historically, university libraries have been dominated by books written by white men from Europe. Initiatives like the University of Huddersfield’s Broaden My Bookshelf aim to increase the range of books written by BAME and LGBT+ authors, among other underrepresented groups. In 2017, the university allocated £20,000 to purchase books suggested by staff and students.

Attainment gap
The BAME attainment gap is the difference between the proportion of white and BAME students who graduate with a first- or upper second-class degree. Research undertaken by Universities UK and the NUS last year found evidence of a 13% gap across UK universities, furthering calls for a review of the way in which grades are awarded and support offered.

Analysis by the University and College Union in 2019 found a 9% pay gap between BAME and white academic staff, while a BBC study that year suggests a pay gap as high as 26% for black and Arab staff compared with white British peers, based on the average salaries earned at Russell Group unis. Experts attribute the pay gap differences to underrepresentation of BAME staff in senior (better-paid) academic roles alongside a lack of support for career progression for individuals.

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