Below two DDU supporters argue why many universities are wrong to uncritically embrace the Universities UK Report, ‘Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education’.
A personal response from Howard Sherwood, graphic designer and DDU supporter
Following the publication of the Universities UK (UUK) report, many predicted that it would be adopted by higher education establishments as policy. The message to staff and students of the University of Aberdeen confirms this and will probably be the first of many to make sure that universities display their ‘Me Too’ credentials to all and sundry.
The message from a team consisting of the Vice Chancellor, Student President, Senior Race Champion and two Co-Convenors of the Race Equality Strategy Group, contains the requisite lexicon of the social justice canon: ‘truly anti-racist’; ‘systemic racism’; ‘microaggressions’; ‘inclusion; ‘recognising… …diversity’; ‘an inclusive culture which celebrates the diversity of our staff and students’; ‘enriches the experience’; ‘embedding and mainstreaming an anti-racist culture’; ‘decolonising the curriculum’. It’s as though, through repetition of these buzz-words, that the act of making such a statement is equivalent to concrete action.
Language and how it is used reveals much: words are important, both in a strictly semantic sense and in what they signify. The Aberdeen statement is over-burdened with terms that imply substantial action, but have little, at least to me, meaning: ‘investment in race equality training’; ‘Race Equality Champions in every School and Directorate’; ‘drive progress on race equality’.
The message also indicates the extent of the infrastructure that has grown around race: ‘Race Equality Strategy Group’; ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Students’ Forum’; ‘Grampian Regional Equality Council’; ‘Ethnic Minority Forum’.
I regard myself as being more cynical than most – much of that cynicism is derived from experience in the commercial world. The lemming-like behaviour of institutions and their associated professional membership bodies may be informed by genuine aspirations of justice and fairness, but it is also driven by a commercial imperative to do what is necessary to survive: universities need to attract students, and apparently their marketing now extends beyond the content of their courses to the adoption of what they (possibly correctly) perceive to be essential core beliefs to attract their potential customers.
I would not venture to predict where all this might lead, but conclude with the words of William Shakespeare in what is, rather appropriately, known as ‘the Scottish play’:
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
But it does signify something says Alka Sehgal Cuthbert – educator, founding DDU signatory and democratic anti-racist activist of old.
Since the publication of the Universities UK report last November many universities have sent out messages stating, in effect, that there will be important changes in the both the institutional culture and course content. It seems that despite being institutions of learning, many universities are enthusiastically embracing a report that DDU Academics have comprehensively critiqued for both its methodological weakness and its divisive ideological assumptions.
No-doubt some academic-activists will feel vindicated by official endorsement from administrators and the EHRC whose 2019 report heavily influenced that of UUK. At last the bureaucrats who have overseen a regime of managerialism, worsening work conditions, and the corrosion of both intellectual standards and relationships, have seen the light and got on board with the new ‘anti-racist’ message. New positions with material benefits and/or privileged status are in the offing.
However, there are also many academics whose hearts will sink as they read these statements, but who will feel unwilling or unable to articulate their concerns for fear of being seen as racists themselves. They are being placed in the invidious position where their own beliefs in more classical liberal and humanist values put them, de facto, in opposition to their institution’s new set of commitments that are closer to politics than education. Discussions seem to have been between officials, administrators and representatives of selected minority groups rather than the wider, open and necessarily critical debate needed to legitimise such changes. This will rupture whatever shreds are left of academic collegiality and deepen divisions.
Eschewing any pretence of healthy intellectual scepticism, the message from De Montfort University, for example, fully endorses UUK’s recommendation and states, ‘Everyone must engage in challenging conversations in order for meaningful change to be possible.’ And University College London has a Race Equality Implementation Group who state that their approach will be explicitly ‘equity’ rather than ‘equality’ based because they wish to ‘target resources at those who are most disadvantaged by structural racialised inequity and racism at UCL’. At the time of writing, the Royal College of Arts, London South Bank University, and universities of Durham, Sheffield, Sussex, Reading and East Anglia have issued similar declarations of support for the UUK’s report, and no doubt more will follow.
Much as I love Shakespeare, the UUK report and its fulsome welcome from Vice-Chancellors and bureaucrats does signify a great deal that should be of public concern. It signifies that many universities have abandoned their public mission of education in favour of minority political interests. It signifies that the intellectual norms by which truth claims are evaluated and judged are less important than the reported lived experience of certain groups. And it signifies that the modern meritocratic dimension of universities as sites where students from various backgrounds and experiences could stand, and be judged, as equals in respect of their intellectual efforts, is now seen as illegitimate. The new mission of universities is to cultivate a cadre of students well-versed in tenets of identity politics at the expense of scholarly engagement with canonical knowledge. Culture and value change are academia’s new ethical principles: not the advancement of knowledge in the pursuit of truth.
None of this will help people facing racism or other forms of inequality, if anything it creates new, pernicious divisions by encouraging students to identify with models of victimhood which, in the UK at least, are based on fiction rather than fact. For example, the Penryn Politics Department at Exeter University is championing a student-led review which opens with a quote from American based academic, Himadeep Muppidi:
‘Just as we don’t design zoos to help the animals examine the displays,’ the museum was not ‘designed on the premise that the colonised would, one day, be walking through its corridors.’ In the same way we believe that higher education was not designed for the colonised to be sitting in its classrooms.
The out-of-context quote is shocking in its comparison between animals and people: that it shocks is testament to society’s moral progress. It is sad to see sections of academia so willing to take us back to the prejudiced ideas of past racists, albeit with a more contemporary presentation. Where course content is found to be out-of-date or discredited, there may well be grounds to replace it with epistemologically better material. And where race-based prejudices exist, direct or indirect but intentional, they need strong challenging. However, if we are to retain any sense of historical specificity, the existence of either, which is not as widespread as we are often led to believe, is not incontrovertible proof that colonialism of the past continues today in Britain. Students who seriously think that their position is in any way comparable to citizens of Britain’s former colonies really need to be disabused of this egregiously ill-informed idea, not encouraged.
However, while historico-political interpretations of colonialism can, and should, be debated, what should be less casually negotiable are established disciplinary criteria for developing or changing course content. Students’ mis-placed feelings or beliefs that they are ‘colonised’, no matter how loudly voiced or amplified by sympathetic academic-activists, are insufficient reason to re-shape academic courses. Reframing seminars and lectures as therapeutic spaces for some BAME students to ‘unpack how they feel about our experiences in higher education’ is incompatible with the intellectual aims of higher education. Unpacking experiences is better done informally through the free-association of students in their own time and spaces, or in extreme cases of distress, in a properly-trained therapist’s room.
DDU’s Academics’ report provides some concrete suggestions of what might help disadvantaged students participate fully in academic life. Furthermore, it is well known that a key variable in improved retention rates and educational outcomes at university is students’ prior educational achievement and experience. A central component of this is the extent to which pupils have been introduced to subjects based on disciplinary knowledge. Anyone seriously interested in addressing inequalities in education would be arguing to ensure conditions are provided for schools to fulfil this task. Instead UUK calls for decolonising curricula. The slogan has wide-ranging meanings, and not all are necessarily bad, but in general, the term effectively blurs the boundary between knowledge and politics – and this can’t be good for either.