Tackling inequality and lack of diversity in education

(Photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images).
(Photo: Cate Gillon/Getty Images).

 By Raoul Walawalker

AFTER Black Lives Mat­ters (BLM) protesters took to the streets worldwide following the death of George Floyd on May 25, the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bris­tol should not have come as such a surprise.

But while several pe­titions to end the com­memoration of slavery-funded facilities have been launched over the years, they have also been opposed by vari­ous parties – like a guild historically linked to slavery (the Society of Merchant Venturers) and councillor Richard Eddy, a former Conservative leader on Bristol City Council, who called the petitioners “historically illiterate”.

Eddy’s viewpoint comes from what has been termed the ‘white­washed’ version of his­tory. It only sees and celebrates benefits gained from the philan­thropy of Colston and other businessmen and guilds linked to slavery – donations to local so­cial and religious struc­tures – while omitting the part of the narrative concerning black people.

The same white­washing process is matched by the margin­alising of BAME history in curricula, along with a consistently low rep­resentation of people from BAME back­grounds in teaching and academia.

And while the BLM movement has brought the subject of racial ine­quality into the spotlight, groups such as the Black, Asian and Minority Eth­nic Educators Network say that for systemic racism to be tackled, it needs to be addressed at its roots – at national curriculums and staff diversity levels.

Bristol University acknowledged last year that it indirectly benefited from funds generat­ed from slave plantation labour in the southern US states by as much as 85 per cent of its initial funding. It also appoint­ed Professor Olivette Otele to a new role as ‘professor of the history of slavery’ in the univer­sity’s history depart­ment and Centre for Black Humanities.

The appointment of the black female aca­demic is all the more significant when you assess the scale of un­der-representation of black staff in UK univer­sities in senior jobs. On­ly three per cent of black academic staff at uni­versities are professors, according to a Universi­ty and College Union study. Overall, 84 per cent of academic staff are white, but 93 per cent of professors are white, as are 91 per cent of ac­ademic-related manag­ers. Fewer than one per cent of professors hired last year were black. And while Black History Month was launched in 1987, even the most his­torically significant BAME people don’t fea­ture on the curriculum.

Diversified teaching could start by looking outside the framing ref­erence of the colonial period, exploring areas written about by popu­lar historians like David Olusga and Onyeka Nu­bia. Similarly, the cur­riculum could adopt a neutral, less-doctored version of the colonial past, acknowledging that racism was integral to Britain’s ‘Empire.’

Meanwhile, despite diversity being ac­knowledged as a posi­tive aspect of university education, it is likely to face major setbacks next year due to the combined impact of Covid-19 and post- Brexit immigration rules from January.

Students from out­side the UK will now need to apply for a Tier 4 student visa and a separate work visa after graduating to remain in the country. They will also have to pay tuition fees upfront instead of spreading the costs through student loans, meaning many will have to find up to £26,000 per year to study.

When factoring in the impact of Covid-19 on choices made in light of new concerns over risks of studying overseas and travel restrictions, it is likely that universities may see related de­creases in the number and diversity of stu­dents and staff.

While overhauling the history curriculum does seem long over­due, the horizon looks blighted by a new sys­tem favouring the wealthiest international students above all, with an overall decrease in foreign pupils and staff and less diversity, not to mention new funding challenges many uni­versities could face.

Raoul Walawalker is a features writer for the Immigration Advice Service.