Decoloniality, ‘diversity’, and discomfort: Transforming the Academy.

Following the 2015 ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest in Cape Town and its eventual arrival on British and American university campuses, decolonising academia has become a flashpoint of discussion. Minority-ethnicity students are becoming increasingly aware of the lack of representation they and their histories face in current academic spaces- be it within the classroom or outside of it.

With an upsurge in research initiatives geared towards postcolonial studies, institutions are taking cognizance of the importance of such critical perspectives. Yet, it must be asked, if this cognizance and engagement is one emerging out of genuine concern and enthusiasm to mainstream the postcolonial narrative? The 2018 Higher Education Staff Statistics showed that only a fraction of professors in UK universities were from a Black and Minority Ethnicity (BAME)background, with only 25 black female professors. It reiterates a fact that has been well known within academia: minority ethnicity academics, especially women, are under-represented, underpaid, and more likely to be on fixed-term and precarious contracts when compared to their White peers. Similarly, the attainment gap between White students and BAME students, though narrowing remains significant with 80% of White students attaining first and upper-second class degrees compared to only 66% of BAME students.

The facts concerning the institutional representation of BAME students are frustrating but also very well known- so well known, that the lack of progress is disconcerting. The lack of representation of BAME students in Oxbridge and prominent Russell Group universities is appaling with only 2% of Oxbridge’s 2017 intake being black. Russel Group universities fare only marginally better with 4% of their 2017 intake being black. The lack or absence of representation is well known but institutional efforts to reform the situation have been non-existent or incredibly slow moving. There is an increasingly visible correlation between BAME students attending universities in cities like London, with more than 25% students being from a minority background, and a majority of them concentrated in “less prestigious” universities.

The issues surrounding representation have become central to conversations about British Higher Education due to the increasing instances of racism on university campuses and the tepid response of university management towards them. The rhetoric of ‘diversity’ has failed at its job of creating a community and environment that is conscious of the needs and experiences of minority students. By only engaging with BAME students in a tokenistic manner and placing the onus on them to participate and assimilate with a predominantly white culture and community, university managers implicitly preserve the status quo of white-ness and European-ness, rendering minority students as second-rate and fighting for their space. In the neoliberal academy, the rhetoric of diversity also takes a corporate undertone where programmes and courses are created to “diversify” university portfolios and minority students and their achievements are given centre-stage in promotional materials.

The violence and exclusionary power of racism is not only visible through attainment gaps, campus hate speech, or limited representation. For international students, especially those from the Global South, The exclusionary power of racism manifests itself in restricting visa policies, prohibitively high tuition fees, and scarce financial and institutional support. Breathtaking ignorance regarding the experience of international students, their circumstances and their cultural contexts leads to insensitive induction programmes centred around “introducing them to life in Britain” or mental health professionals not adequately trained to assist on specific issues that immigrant students face. Administrative engagement with UK Border policies brings the border into the daily lives of international students and staff, creating an anxiety where many are left with their rights restricted and at risk of penalty if they put a toe out of line.

Seeking appropriate representation and recognition of colonial histories and their present embodiment gets harder when such experiences are mentioned on the side or merely sprinkled on “mainstream” (white) narratives. The memories of colonialism are still very fresh in the minds of those who were colonised and continue to impact our current lives. Ignoring this history, its impact on minority-ethnicity people, and the role it plays in the current issues of race in British society is harmful to everyone. It is imperative that universities face up to their colonial histories and interrogate the ways they continue to maintain them.

Oxbridge’s failure to acknowledge its colonial past and how it has benefited from it (A Guardian report found that the two elite universities had a cumulative wealth of £21bn accumulated over decades.), and its implicit support for academics that aim to whitewash the effects of colonialism demonstrate the historical blindness that exists in the upper echelons of academia. The reluctance to hire specialist (ethnic minority )staff to teach courses on postcolonialism and incorporate diverse themes and literature from the Global South continues to privilege the European understanding of colonialism and world history. When we teach BAME youth that their ethnic histories are not worthy of space in the mainstream, we perpetuate the belief that they are unworthy too. By centralising the experiences and voices of those from the South in conversations about them, we give the deserved recognition and representation.

If we are to truly embody an ethic of decoloniality in our academies, we must look outside our classrooms and reading lists. We must actively challenge practices that continue to make our universities unequal and create a space that is truly intersectional. Proper representation to minority staff and students in the governing structures of universities, addressing the social and economic inequity between white and minority ethnicity staff and students and providing them space and agency to voice opinions that question the privilege of their peers. To decolonise means to have difficult discussions about race, class, gender, and privilege. It is to disrupt the accepted status quo and rupture the “comfortable ignorance” of those immune to the ramifications of race. It is high-time that minority students and their histories claimed their rightful space, be it at the expense of white and European discomfort.