Montmorency Sharp provides a sharp-eyed commentary on the second and final session of the Oriel Commission’s Inquiry with regards to the fate of the Rhodes statue and plaque. Our fears that our cultural gatekeepers have a very ‘thin’ idea of the public are, sadly, confirmed:
This was another session where questions were invited from the public and then ignored.
The members of the commission questioned Dr Rebecca Surender, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Advocate for Equality and Diversity at the University of Oxford, and Dr Samina Khan, Director, Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at University of Oxford. Dr Surender quoted statistics which told us what we already knew, that black and Asian school leavers in the UK are more likely to go to university than their white peers, and that Oxford is a very international university which recruits the best from all over the world. She pointed to a gap of 8% between first class degrees awarded to white and to minority students. This statistic lumps many very different people into a single category which is not very meaningful. We may have learned more from looking at, say, the number of first-class degrees obtained by students who had received free school meals. It is also worth considering whether the courses which are most popular with minority applicants award as many firsts as the courses which attract mainly white (or middle class) students.
Evidence from Oxford
Dr Surender then presented some anecdotal evidence which was gathered in a survey. “The data only gets us so far,” she says, “and it is the qualitative accounts and the feedback we receive that really captures what it is like to be a BME member of this university.” Some ethnic minority students reported isolation in colleges and departments and a sense of ‘not belonging’ (take it from me, Dr Surender, at Oxford we all suffer from imposter syndrome), “overt and subtle forms of racism” (but no indication of how these serious allegations were followed up). Other issues raised were socialisation and welfare (welcome to young adulthood). There were concerns about staffing: a lack of academic role models in faculties or graduate supervisors who look like them. We don’t know how the survey questions may have elicited certain responses, but encouraging students to be preoccupied with whether their lecturers or supervisors look like them, rather than the fact that they are in a position to be learning from some of the finest minds in their field, is demeaning to both students and staff.
Decolonising the Curriculum
Another complaint was that of a lack of diversity of thought and perspectives in the curriculum. Seriously? Whoever said that cannot have read the course descriptions in the humanities faculty, where for example, we can see that world literature is a growing area of study within the Faculty of English Literature and Language. The History Faculty tells prospective applicants, “You can study options on African, Asian, American, British, European, and Global and Transnational History from the fading years of the Roman Empire to the present day.” Course options offered by the English Faculty include “The American Novel after 1945, Post-War British Drama, Postcolonial Literature, Forming Literary Character, The Icelandic Saga, Writing Feminisms/Feminist Writing, Film Criticism, Tragedy, Afrofabulation”. From the French department we hear, “French, and the francophone cultures of Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, are also some of the richest and most rewarding to study on the planet.” Courses include “non-metropolitan Francophone writing, the representation of the city, the literary reflection of national identity, cultural marginalization, and AIDS writing”.
The accusation of lack of diverse perspectives in curricula is untenable, but this doesn’t stop the administrators in charge of Equality and Diversity assenting to a straw man version of the curriculum which, according to Dr Surender, they then propose to bravely to challenge through “unconscious bias and equality and diversity training”. Dr Surender does not give context or examples to explain what she takes decolonization of the curriculum to mean but if she is referring to the “de-Europeanisation” of reading lists, that is removing books by white authors and replacing them with African and Asian authors, or replacing European with non-European history, then the underlying assumption is patronising. It assumes that minority students do not have the intellectual depth to gain something from learning about people who neither look like them nor share their experiences, and that their race, rather than intellectual interests or anything else, determines what they can gain from their education.
Race Equality Charter
In response to a 2018 staff survey which suggested that BME staff are more likely to report having experienced or witnessed bullying or harassment than white staff, Dr Surender assured the commission that Oxford was participating the Race Equality Charter scheme. Most universities have a string of such logos on their letterheads. It saves them thinking too hard about their equality policies and enables them to claim that they simply follow the crowd, or the enlightened part of it, and therefore cannot be wrong. The Race Equality Charter tells us that “Racial inequalities are a significant issue within higher education. Racism is an everyday facet of UK society and racial inequalities manifest themselves in everyday situations, processes and behaviours” This statement, with its privileging of a particular definition of racial inequality as microaggressions, allows anecdotal evidence to be treated as fact, and many incidents to be extrapolated from a few personal accounts. If the factual evidence will not support a picture of Oxford as a hotbed of bigotry, then, it seems, one has to go with the anecdotal.
Dr Surender stated that “The ultimate purpose is to create a fully open inclusive organisation where we all feel proud and happy to belong to the organisation, and so focus on cultural change is obviously necessary.” To this end she suggested “diversifying portraiture’ which implies that Oxford undergraduates are not open-minded enough to belong to a community unless someone there looks exactly like themselves. Another example of the patronising assumptions on which such attempts at culture change are predicated.
Dr Surender regretted that the collegiate nature of the university makes it harder to standardise practice or centrally direct change. Too much diversity, then? “Media and external scrutiny” are cited as an obstacle to implementation, as it makes the academics risk-averse. To put it another way, the academics are treading carefully, lest they make fools of themselves in the public gaze.
In response to a question from Laura van Broekhoven, Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, about assessing culture change, Dr Surender admitted that culture change is hard to quantify or define. How would an institution know that is has an open and fair culture? “We do a lot of consultation, with focus groups and surveys to capture what our culture is like,” she said. “We know from surveys and focus groups that both staff and students talk a lot about racism and that the university is not as inclusive as they would like it to be, and yet our formal complaints are very small. There is a disjunction between formal complaints and what people are telling us.”
Dr Surender prefers to take anecdotal evidence to mean that racial harassment is an everyday fact of life for minority students and staff at Oxford, while explaining away the lack of formal complaints as victims not having the confidence to use the complaints procedure. An alternative explanation is that a conversational account of what seemed in the heat of the moment like a racist incident seems more ambiguous when it has to meet a standard of proof and there is the risk that someone may be falsely accused and a career ruined.
Historian William Beinart then asked Dr Samina Khan about the numbers of black British undergraduates, given that, even though there has been a large increase in South Asian students, the point of the protests concerned black British undergraduate students. Dr Khan said that, bearing in mind that not all applicants declare their ethnicity on their UCAS form, Oxford takes its fair share of UK-based ethnic minority students who achieve at least three As at A-level. The proportion of 18 to 26-year-olds from ethnic minority backgrounds in the UK is currently 18%, while as a proportion of Oxford’s 2019 intake they make up 22%. Over time there has been an increase in the number of students of African and Afro-Caribbean heritage and also small increases in students from Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage, who are underrepresented and often attend less well performing schools.
Television and radio journalist, Zeinab Badawi, asked about the specific challenges faced by minority prospective applicants. Dr Khan talked about confidence and ambition, opportunities to be stretched academically and access to more challenging learning materials, and how these issues can be addressed in the lower years in schools. Badawi, however, was interested in the Rhodes factor. “Are you able to glean whether, in the last five years, there are students who are put off applying to Oriel as their first-choice college because of the Rhodes controversy, compared to colleges of a similar size?” Dr Khan replied, “Students from an Afro-Caribbean heritage tend to apply to colleges where they have met student ambassadors who look like them. It makes a big difference, when you visit a college, that there is somebody there who looks like you, and who could be living down the road from you. When colleges struggle to recruit students from those backgrounds, it is because they don’t have that role model. Unfortunately, we are still fighting this myth that Oxford is for posh people.”
Badawi wouldn’t let go of Rhodes so easily and came back to the point. “Are they put off applying to Oriel as a first choice?” Dr Khan replied, “In my experience we find it difficult to encourage students to go to Oriel. Oriel is the college where they will say, ‘Oh, that’s where the statue is.’ When they are asked which colleges they would like to go and see, it is rare that Oriel is selected. We put it down to the fact that they have those discussions with the student ambassadors. I don’t have the hard facts, but I believe it is a barrier for certain outreach programmes to be delivered in Oriel as a result of that.”
The Target Oxbridge programme runs residential courses which aim to introduce applicants from underrepresented groups to college life. This has been based at Christ Church for some years. In the past there have been a few visits to Oriel, but not a residential course. Dr Khan concluded, “If we were to run a residential at Oriel, we would have to talk to Target Oxbridge. At the moment Target Oxbridge have said they don’t feel comfortable about doing it at Oriel.” We do not know if Oriel College has even been approached with a view to holding residential courses there; or if it has, whether Oriel’s response merits ‘feeling uncomfortable”. So, we can only conclude that this pure speculation.
When we look at how many UK black undergraduate students apply to Oriel, none of these assumptions about the negative influence of the statue on student applications are borne out. Oriel is resolutely in the middle of the pack, and its numbers of black home undergraduate applications have been rising roughly commensurately with those of the university as a whole. In other colleges of similar size (some with larger endowments and more money to spend on outreach, others similar) we see occasional sharp rises and falls:
Oriel Exeter Corpus Lincoln Pembroke University Trinity Queen’s
2019 10 9 7 10 20 6 12 12
2018 11 10 9 10 15 14 6 3
2017 12 8 6 9 12 18 8 10
2016 8 5 4 4 8 8 7 8
2015 4 6 2 6 14 9 4 3
2014 6 3 0 5 14 4 4 4
2013 6 2 4 7 8 7 7 1
Had that awkward little statue stood above the entrance of Pembroke, this would have been taken as evidence that applicants in 2016 were put off by its presence, pointed out to them by the protests in late 2015. Phew! Of course, these small numbers jump up and down for no reason in particular, and one shouldn’t read too much into them. Still, it’s just as well that Oriel went from four to eight applicants and not vice versa. In the same period the number of applicants of unknown ethnicity to Oriel varied from 18 to 26 in a year, and the number of mixed-race applicants from 12 to 26. Both categories rose sharply between 2015 and 2016, and therefore cannot be said to have been bothered about the statue.
The second, and final, session of the Oriel Commission of Inquiry confirmed what the first session suggested, that the public is invited to attend, but only as passive observers to a conversation enacted by cultural guardians who do not really like much public scrutiny. The public are consigned to a silent, bit part of a stage army – to provide a veneer of democratic accountability. The final session also confirmed that many of our cultural and academic experts are willing to use anecdotal evidence, what is nowadays called “lived experience”, instead of facts as a basis for analysis, and from this, make sweeping conclusions and propose far reaching changes to established academic norms.
Photo Credit: Raygar He at Unsplash