Black Lives Matter: It is time for Universities to move beyond tokenistic support

Earlier this year, as the Black Lives Matter movement exploded onto the global arena, Universities across the country released statement after statement supporting the movement and promising to do better by their black students. With Universities such as the University of Westminster releasing joint statements with their Students’ Union and Durham University building an inhouse page dedicated to the movement, it initially seemed promising. Alas, Universities appear to have demonstrated a commitment only on paper and through social media with many of their promises seeming to evaporate as the year has continued.

Though it is not a burden to represent all students, regardless of sex, class or race, the workload has again fallen on Students’ Unions to support their black students and build trust once more with those who have been scorned.

We see the Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham launching their Black Voices campaign aiming to provide Black Students at the University with a platform to discuss and campaign on the issues that impact their lives, and Winchester Students’ Union campaigning to educate each zone in their democratic structure on black history and

the injustices faced by Black communities every day. As two fantastic leading examples, it raises the question: is this enough?

As much as I would like to believe that it is, I am beginning to feel it is not. Students’ Unions do incredible work representing their student body’s and fighting to uplift all voices on their respective campuses. It is exhausting work – that is often unappreciated – and the Covid-19 global pandemic has only demonstrated the tireless commitment Student Officers have towards making their campuses just that little bit better than when they found it.

The responsibility of decolonising our campuses and uplifting all students should not rest solely on Students’ Unions. It is up to University Senior Management to honour the commitments they have made. It is only them who can correct the racial pay gap. It is only them who can diversify our academic experience. It is only them who can work to improve the people represented at senior levels of their organisation. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Universities benefit tenfold by listening to, and working collaboratively, with Students Unions’. Call it a constructive friend, or a critical friend or an opposition. However, some paths we have to take on our own without anyone holding our hand through it.

The role of Universities in improving the black student experience beyond Black Lives Matter was already critiqued in July of this year, when almost 400 academics criticised Universities ‘tokenistic and superficial’ support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, made more apparent due to their inability thus far to tackle institutional racism. In an open letter to Gavin Williamson, and funding council, representative bodies and regulators across the higher education sector, they again highlighted how racism is embedded within the sector and how its ‘systemic and structural nature’ has not been adequately confronted. As we approach the end of the year, it is disheartening to see these valid notes not be acted on uniformly across the sector.

This is not to say that all Universities are failing or that all Universities are inherently racist. We have seen some fantastic success stories over the past few months that I hope continue to grow and develop. However, we must continue to hold Universities, and other organisations, to account for the promises they made mere months ago.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not a moment; we are all watching.

[1] For the purpose of this article, black is defined as students of African and Caribbean descent, opposed to the National Union of Students definition which includes all those of non-white descent.

Joshua Williams

10 Oct 2020

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Black Lives Matter: It is time for Universities to move beyond tokenistic support