By Nadeem Badshah
STUDENTS and activists have welcomed pledges by top universities to “decolonise” courses and increase diversity among staff members, as undergraduates return to their studies in September and October.
At least 41 institutions have unveiled five-year plans to tackle diversity, including an “anti-racist” curriculum and workshops in “unconscious bias”.
Warwick University promised to make its staff more inclusive in all departments, including history, while Warwick Business School said it would adopt non-Western business and management models. And University of Brighton staff have had training in equality and diversity and attended workshops in unconscious bias.
The moves follow the government announcement of a two-year post-study work visa for overseas graduates to address a longterm slump in the number of students coming from countries outside the EU, including India.
Jaspreet Singh, a student at Birmingham City University and a sewadar (volunteer) at the British Organisation of Sikh Students, told Eastern Eye: “The movement to decolonise the curriculum was initiated by students by organising campaigns like ‘Why is my curriculum white?’
“Universities – like the police and many public-funded institutions – can perpetuate racism. It is very important to learn from each other, [rather] than being taught a curriculum which promotes white supremacy and creates conflict between people while being submissive to white supremacy.
“The ‘liberated’ curriculum will automatically attract students from diverse backgrounds as they will feel themselves represented in the books they read.”
A report in September warned that “institutional racism” remains in UK universities and tackling the issue is seen as a lower priority than gender equality.
The Higher Education Policy Institute document said race has often been seen as a “secondary priority”. It added that making research funding conditional on an institution signing up to the Race Equality Charter would be one way of changing attitudes.
Among the universities which unveiled their new plans are those that are part of the prestigious Russell Group.
Yasmin Begum, who is studying for a masters degree in Islam in Contemporary Britain at Cardiff University, told Eastern Eye: “There are more black and minority ethnic students in London Metropolitan University than at all Russell Group universities combined.
“By 2050, ethnic minorities will make up 38 per cent of the UK. With such a poor track record on students of colour, it’s clear that conversations on decolonising the curriculum are moves to future proof Russell Group universities against their historic lack of engagement with diverse students and diverse communities.
“In reality, we need to close the attainment gap for students of colour, abolish fees and boost the representation of BAME lecturers and professors at every level across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales for a united approach on racial equality,” Begum said.
“Calls for decolonisation without a material change in conditions for BAME people in higher education makes decolonisation a metaphor, devoid of any real-life impact and tells us what we knew all along – most conversations on decolonisation are a synonym for equality and diversity to support the institution. It simply does not go far enough.”
In July, freedom of information requests sent to 131 universities showed that students and staff made at least 996 formal complaints of racism over the past five years. Of these, 367 were upheld, resulting in at least 78 student suspensions or expulsions, and 51 staff suspensions, dismissals and resignations.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry earlier this year after a spate of high-profile incidents of racist abuse on campus, and complaints that authorities were not doing enough to handle them.
Any university or college intending to charge more than around £6,000 a year in fees must have a diversity action plan approved by the Office for Students. The strategy details how an institution intends to tackle issues such as recruitment of disadvantaged students, dropout rates and gaps in degree achievement between groups.
Queen Mary University of London has also created study spaces to cater to students in further education who live with their parents, or in their own houses, as they are less likely to continue with their courses than those who are in student accommodation.
Kishan Devani is vice-president of the Liberal Democrats’s campaign for racial equality and the party’s parliamentary candidate for Montgomeryshire in Wales.
Devani said: “This is a step in the right direction, but we must continue to go further in making our universities look more like the UK we live in.
“Diversity and inclusivity are key for any institution in the UK. We must continue to raise the lack of diversity in all walks of life.
“Decolonising the curriculum is an interesting move, but further detail into the content of the courses and what changes these universities would like to make would allow us to make more sound judgment of the positivity of their proposed plans.
“Of course, these are all steps in the right direction, but much more is needed to be done to balance out the unconscious bias that permeate some institutions across our country.”
The Russell Group said course curriculums and other measures are dealt with by individual universities and there was no groupwide policy