Students occupy Goldsmiths in protest at institutional racism

Campaigners say university failed to respond adequately to racist abuse of student elections candidate

Students have occupied a key building at Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, demanding an institution-wide strategy to tackle racism which they say is undermining the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students.

Protesters belonging to Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action began their occupation of Deptford town hall more than a week ago, after a candidate in the student elections complained she had been subjected to racist abuse.

She reported to university authorities that her election poster had been scrawled over with racist graffiti mocking her accent and her banner removed, but protesters have accused the university of responding inadequately.

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Anger over the incident has fuelled long-standing concerns among the protesters about the experience of BAME students at Goldsmiths, who make up 40% of the student population.

The student union welfare and liberation officer, Mona Mounir, said: “From harassment in classrooms to a lack of mental health provision, a Eurocentric curriculum and an outrageous BAME attainment gap, every day students and staff of colour experience interpersonal and institutional racism.

“This university has not provided enough support, far from it. We have had enough; our occupation is a necessary last resort in the face of an institution that does not take racism seriously.”

Campaigners say many of the issues raised will chime with student experiences elsewhere in the higher education sector, where the dropout rate among BAME students is higher and academic outcomes lower than among their white peers.

In 2017-18, figures for Goldsmiths show 71.6% of BAME undergraduates received either a first class or upper second degree, compared to 89.7% of white undergraduates in the same year.

Last month the university appointed Dr Nicola Rollock as Goldsmiths’ academic lead to address discrepancies in the experience and outcomes of BAME students compared to their white peers. Protesters argue, however, she has not been given enough time or resources to address the scale of the problem.

They have drawn up a manifesto demanding “an institution-wide strategic plan on how the university plans to tackle racism and the realities of life as a BAME student at Goldsmiths”, including changes to the complaints procedures which they regard as largely ineffective and inaccessible to BAME students.

They have also called for mandatory training for all student-facing staff on issues of diversity and race awareness. Goldsmiths has since pledged to start rolling out such training from the start of the next academic year in September 2019.

On Wednesday, the ninth day of the occupation, the protest at Deptford town hall is still going strong. Banners are strung up on the outside of the prestigious Grade II-listed building informing passersby about the anti-racist occupation and students armed with a megaphone shouted out their demands.

The university denies claims from the protesters that it has been heavy-handed in its response to the occupation and says it has already conceded to a number of the protesters’ requests.

In a letter to students taking part in the occupation, the registrar and secretary, Helen Watson, wrote: “With around 40% of our students identifying as black, Asian or ethnic minority, Goldsmiths is proud of our diverse and inclusive community and prejudice of any kind has no place on our campus.

“Any reports of racism or any other discriminatory behaviour are triaged rapidly and, where appropriate, referred to the police. We also actively encourage any victim of such crime to report incidents directly to the police.”

The university has committed to working with the students’ union to review Goldsmiths’ hate crime reporting processes. As well as mandatory staff training on race awareness, the university said it had also agreed to a major additional investment in student wellbeing services.

A university spokesperson told the Guardian: “We recognise that there is more work to do in this area, but we hope these steps demonstrate our commitment to improving the experiences and outcomes of our BAME students.”

Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said: “Universities have a terrible track record of dealing with student experiences of racism. Sometimes it seems like the institutions are set up to mishandle these kinds of issues, with the burden of proof being on the victim to prove that their abuse was racist.

“This should come as no surprise given the history of universities or the realities that the leadership, and those who write the policies are almost exclusively white. I’ve had too many experiences of trying to explain how something is racist that I have almost given up trying, and can see why so many people get frustrated.”


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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