Talk to anyone who’s experienced racism and when it comes to finding broader solutions to racial hatred, they will often say start with education! Sounds simple, but there are mountains to climb such as the curriculum and the UK’s approach to immigration control, say our guest bloggers Olivia Bridge and Peter Markham from the Immigration Advice Service IAS

The brutal killing of George Floyd by a US police officer sparked an international conversation around racism. Here in the UK, the departure from the European Union and toxic anti-immigrant debates that spiralled out of it have led to a direct rise in hate crime

One of the ways campaigners for the Black Lives Matter movement seek to topple embedded racist and discriminatory attitudes is to tackle the racial imbalance at play in UK academia itself. 

Recent research by the University and College Union (UCU) shows that black members of staff experience a 14% pay gap compared to their white counterparts and that white academics dominate most senior roles. One in nine white academic staff members hold senior positions, such as professorships, compared with only one in 33 of their black colleagues.

Black Lives Matter demonstration in London in June 2020: Photo: James Eades (Unsplash)

Tackling the curriculum

Little surprise then that the UK school curriculum largely fails to educate young people in important aspects of black history. The overall racial makeup of staff makes things harder, but certainly does not rule out a willingness by some to change what is taught in schools and universities to something ‘less white.’

Part of the way forward is a more balanced and fairer curriculum, particularly in the area of social history. It is vital to ensure that a wider range of black studies is taught, yet the Government as directed by the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove, diluted the curriculum in 2014 by controversially replacing teaching the horrors of Britain’s colonial past to celebrate ‘imperial heroes’ instead.

Just 11% of GCSE students study modules that reference black people’s contribution to the UK, while the vast majority take a US-focus on the transatlantic slave trade. The Black Curriculum campaign group wants to see black British history woven into the curriculum at every level. This would challenge the status quo in which black history is merely referenced through the confines of slavery. 

It’s true that some exam boards have rolled out modules like ‘pre-colonial African Kingdoms’ to increase diversity in history lessons, but they are a drop in the ocean and change needs to go far beyond this to be effective.

There’s plenty of fear surrounding this debate, but some, like Mia Liyanage, suggest decolonising the curricula  ‘strikes right at the heart of the core aims of a university education.’

Sweeping immigration reforms

Another big issue facing academia is the sweeping reform proposed across the board to the UK’s immigration rules scheduled for 2021, which will restrict the mobility of foreign talent and could dilute the diverse and multicultural acceptance the country is calling for.

By the start of next year, migrant EU talent will need to apply and pay for a Skilled Worker Visa to come and work in a UK university – providing they can satisfy the Home Office’s rigorous and rigid points system. 

Delivering one-off lecturers, participating in research studies or coming to feature in a conference is about to be met with bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly red tape.

Many are wondering how UK institutions will remain competitive and a hub of collaborative minds when it will be the Home Office which decides who can or cannot enter the country.

Take, for instance, the African academics routinely denied ‘Visit Visas’ to contribute their research in the UK in 2018: The Government doubts that such individuals will return to their home country by the end of their trip and subsequently rejects a disproportionately high number of applications. 

‘Institutional racism’

Critics attribute sudden spikes in refusals to ‘institutional racism’; the Government just can’t seem to fathom that academics from African countries would want or have compelling reasons to return home after visiting the UK – even when sponsored by a UK institution or research body for a specific job.

Peter Markham (pictured) says: “Skills-based immigration system might be more appropriately named ‘salary-based’.

Take the examples of migrant academics in the UK – namely, Dr Asiya Islam and Dr Nazia Hussein – who had been conducting vital research abroad. They were  denied permanent residency for being outside the UK for too long, despite submitting mountains of evidence detailing their essential fieldwork overseas which included carrying out research in India and Bangladesh.

We feel it is evident that the Home Office cares little for an applicant’s social status, academic contributions or skills and more for their nationality and salary. The so-called ‘skills-based immigration system’ might be more appropriately named ‘salary-based’.

Visas and high fees for EU students

As for the EU, young people wishing to study in one of the UK’s prestigious universities will need to apply and pay for a Student Visa for the next academic year. 

European students have long been charged the same ‘home fees’ and had the same access to loans and scholarships as British students – but that’s all going to change, too, as they’ll now have to pay upfront and cough up increased fees of up to £26,000 a year due to their new ‘international status’. 

Despite this grave deterrent in which one survey found 84% of EU youth would not consider studying in the UK due to the cost, the government says it is ‘confident’ that it will continue to attract international talent.

The Coronavirus crisis is only piling on yet another unhelpful dimension. Travel restrictions have seen a dramatic plummet in tourism to the UK, but for universities, COVID-19 could translate into as many as 13 going ‘bust’ without a financial bailout from the government. 

High-ranking universities with large numbers of international students are facing a real risk of insolvency and financial strain, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The fear is that a hike in fees for students coupled with a diluted access to talent pools could see diversity gap within education widen.

It is clear there is a lot to be done when stamping out prejudice in the UK. 

Although rolling out structural reforms in education and creating diversity quotas for staff could be a positive step forward, the Government’s proposed immigration rules present the UK as not only a hostile environment, but a hostile country turning its back on the importance of an exchange of minds, talent and black and migrant contributions. 

As things stand at the moment, the Government appears to be adding to the existing inequalities than seeking pragmatic approaches to unravel them.

·       Also see Nic Mitchell’s reports from recent webinars on combatting racism in higher education for University World News: Tackle racism as HE dealt with sexual harassment and Ditch COVID-19 equaliser myth and Eurocentric curriculum

  • Photographs thanks to James Eades @eadesstudio via Unsplash

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