The rise of woke segregationism
Black students don’t need to attend black universities to succeed.
Segregation is back, only this time it’s woke. Incredibly, while most of us look at Apartheid South Africa or Jim Crow-era America with unalloyed horror, today’s radicals see something to emulate. Not so long ago, the idea of a university that took account of race when considering student admissions, academic hires and even the content of the curriculum would have been thought abhorrent in the UK; now just such a plan is backed by the University College Union (UCU) and the National Union of Students.
The idea for a Free Black University is the brainchild of Melz Owusu, soon to be PhD student at the University of Cambridge and former sabbatical officer at the University of Leeds. After launching a GoFundMe campaign Owusu is now calling on universities to ‘redistribute’ money her way. The plan is for an institution focused solely on the needs of black students with a decolonised curriculum taught through online lectures ‘exploring radical and transformational topics’ together with a virtual library of radical readings; a journal and podcast as well as an annual conference for black radical thinkers. All of this is needed, Owusu argues, because existing universities are ‘built on colonisation – the money, buildings, architecture – everything is colonial’. The consequence for black students is that: ‘They fail. They experience racism all the time and the university doesn’t necessarily deal with that in the best way, or deal with it at all.’
But is this true? Jo Grady, the general secretary of UCU, certainly seems to think so. In a damning indictment of her union’s members, she claims black students have to confront ‘a university system that is at best ambivalent towards you, and at worst openly hostile’. It has become widely accepted that BAME students are less likely to gain entry to top universities, more likely to drop out of higher education, and less likely to leave with a good degree. However, none of this stands up to scrutiny.
As Wanjiru Njoya and Doug Stokes point out, according to the 2011 national census, non-white people make up roughly 13 per cent of the UK population. Yet 20 per cent of all students in the UK are from BAME communities. Among league table-topping Russell Group universities, this figure rises to 21.6 per cent. There hardly seems to be a colour bar on students entering higher education.
So what about academic achievement? In 2017/18, 29 per cent of white students came away with first-class degrees compared to only 13.5 per cent of black students: apparently clear evidence of an ethnic attainment gap. But look more closely: 21 per cent of Asian and 25 per cent of mixed-race students also got firsts. And when we move down a rung the gap narrows considerably: 47 per cent of white students got a 2.1 degree compared to 42 per cent of black students, 44 per cent of Asian and 49 per cent of mixed-race students. Take into account factors such as the type of university attended, prior attainment, subject choice and parental income and even this tiny ethnic attainment gap becomes non-existent.
So, are BAME students who perform well at university beating the odds while battling constant racist abuse? According to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in the three-and-a-half years up to January 2019, universities received an average of just 2.3 complaints of racial harassment from staff and 3.6 from students. This equates to 0.006 per cent of students and 0.05 per cent of staff lodging complaints. Which is hardly surprising. British universities must be among the most liberal and least racist places on Earth. At the last election, over 80 per cent of staff expressed their intention to vote for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party. Hotbeds of right-wing nationalism they are not. Inclusion and diversity workshops, awareness-raising programmes, decolonisation training and unconscious-bias testing abound.
Yet Owusu claims a Free Black University is needed because, ‘we hear from black students all the time that they leave university traumatised’. In response, she proposes a ‘members’ space for black academics who need support’ as well as ‘a space of community and care for black students, connecting them with black therapists, counsellors and community healers to offer a range of support’. It’s almost as if the more universities do to raise awareness of racism, decolonise everything and challenge all perceived microaggressions, the more some black students experience higher education as traumatic.
Sadly, segregation has become fashionable. It was back in 2016 that students first called for LGBT-only halls of residence on campus. US universities increasingly offer living and recreational facilities solely for the use of black students. Defenders often nod to the highly successful historically black universities in the US. But these universities were established out of necessity at a time when black people were prohibited from attending most colleges. Today’s calls for segregation are less a demand for equality and more an expansion of the campus safe space.
Those backing the Free Black University wrongly assume that black students need black tutors, black classmates and a black curriculum in order to succeed. This insults the many black students who have not only succeeded in higher education, but who have also gone on to make significant contributions to global scholarship. The word ‘university’ comes from the Latin ‘universitas’ meaning ‘the whole, total, the world’ – at best, universities should offer access to humanity’s collective knowledge to all who want to pursue it, irrespective of their skin colour. We can’t let woke segregationists disrupt this aspiration.