I got asked a lot of annoying questions when I was a student. Some were about my hair texture (afro, kinky), libido (presumed to be supernatural) and expected ability to dance (think Beyoncé). Over time, researching the experiences of other students at Oxford, where I studied, I’ve found these interactions to be a common consequence of being black and female in an environment that is populated not just by white students but also by many who have never met a black person in the flesh before.
Then there was another question, asked by a much wider demographic. When I told people who lived and worked in Oxford – including local black people – that I was a student in the city, they would ask, “Oxford Brookes?”
People assumed that was where someone who looked like me belonged. I was at Oxford University, not Oxford Brookes – a distinction that didn’t bother me in the slightest per se. What bothered me was the assumption, and the reason behind it. Oxford Brookes is a former polytechnic, and although it has excellent ratings in some subjects, lacks the prestige of the University of Oxford, where I was studying. It does, however, have both better levels of diversity and less of the stigma of being a place of study reserved for the most privileged and elite.
In part, however, their assumption was right. A report out on Tuesday suggests that black and ethnic minority students are far more likely to study at newer, post-1992 universities, and those with highly diverse student bodies. The study by the Institute for Policy at the University of Bath, found that while some universities are 95% white, at others minority students make up almost three-quarters of the student body. At the same time, the report says, “many prestigious universities … do not reflect the diversity of the cities in which they are located”.
These findings confirm what many of us already know: our universities are both a symptom and a cause of segregation. They are a symptom because young people are segregated well before they submit their university applications. Analysis from Demos in 2015 found, for instance, that 61% of ethnic minority pupils in England enter schools where ethnic minority pupils are a majority. In 2016, the Social Integration Commission found that young people under 17 have fewer than 50% of the interactions with other ethnicities than would be expected if there was no social segregation. Another government-commissioned report last year by Louise Casey found local areas that are becoming increasingly divided, and that some groups – such as those of Pakistani or Bangaldeshi heritage – experienced “profound socioeconomic exclusion”.
But universities are also a cause of segregation because, as they gain reputations for being un-diverse, they repel perfectly capable students from non-white and underprivileged backgrounds who should consider studying there. Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds told researchers that they were concerned about “feeling uncomfortable or thought they might be stared at” if they went to places with few other minorities. They were right to be concerned. Being in an environment where you are an extreme minority often pits you against a level of ignorance, as I found, and renders you self-conscious and highly visible at a time when you are already vulnerable as a young person, away from home probably for the first time, experiencing new academic and social pressures without the support of your family and community. This is not just about race. Students from working-class backgrounds are often deeply self-conscious in an Oxbridge or Russell group environment when surrounded by public school middle-class students too.
Students who do overcome the anxiety this creates cannot necessarily expect any support from their university either. Of the two students I have informally mentored, from both ethnic minority and working-class backgrounds, at prestigious, mainly white universities, both dropped out. One returned, eventually gaining a first-class degree – a result that suggests her anxiety about her academic ability was entirely unfounded. Instead, she suffered from a kind of “impostor syndrome”, which is common among students who do not see themselves reflected in the student body. The other student is still considering whether she can face going back. Neither had the support they deserved from the university, nor the recognition that theirs was a unique set of emotional and social challenges that needed to be addressed.
Universities still adopt a stance of “tolerance” – suggesting they are performing some kind of good deed by allowing students from minority backgrounds to study there – instead of recognising the need to take proactive steps to enable to them to thrive. The Office for Fair Access to higher education (Offa), which requires universities to set targets and milestones for increasing access to their courses, warned last month that “far more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds leave before completing their courses, but far fewer receive the highest grades when they do stay the distance”. Offa is explicit that it doesn’t impose sanctions on universities solely for not meeting their targets.
None of this surprising. We are yet to develop a sophisticated approach to identity and integration in Britain, and our universities are no exception. This report sheds light on the need for greater diversity at our universities. But getting students through the door will not be enough on its own.
Source By theguardian.com