Reflections on Decolonising the University of York

Presentation delivered by Clara Garcia, VP Wellbeing and Community to the ILTA Steering Group at the University of York

Hi everyone, and thank you for inviting me to this forum to present the work done by the student unions in the past year. Today I wanted to contribute to this conversation with some general notes on the student’s vision for a decolonised UoY, that does not only reduced to the curriculum but tackles how decolonising should also focus on wider issues such as racism in our community and the institutional approach. I just wanted to take a minute to appreciate how today’s session has done an effort to include and focus on student voices, and to involve the SUs and representatives, and I am really excited to be part of this project and to start working together.  I would also like to acknowledge the importance of hosting events like this one specially this year, after seeing how the Black Lives Matter movement has shaken the world, and direct violence, symbolic violence and structural violence against black and brown people has been denounced with the struggle of millions in the streets.

As we know, the student community has engaged in debates about racism and colonialism and is demanding comprehensive, institutional approaches to tackle racial inequalities. Yesterday, during the first meeting of the Race Equality Coordination Group, one of the comments on the discussion really inspired me, so I am taking their words now: Universities should be leading anti-racist work, we should be setting the example as an educative institution. I completely agree with this statement. For me, universities should be a place hosting and enhancing marginal voices, radical voices, voices that push for change, and we should be setting the example, not only because it is ethically right to care and respect minorities rights, not only because is a moral duty to confront the colonial legacies that are embedded in our institutions, but simply because it will change radically our students lives.

And we should care more about how our student community experiences their years in our institution, we should look attentively at how what we do, and foremost, what we don’t, affects students lives.

I have found it difficult to engage in debates and discussions around the decolonisation of our education. Mainly because everyone wants to speak about it, but we all understand differently what it means. Some people understand it as representation in our structures and reading lists, some people as celebrating diversity in our community, and some people as a work of inclusion. It might be all of those. But if I have understood something about decolonisation, is that it is a constant, complex and especially an uncomfortable work that will require everyone to start questioning what decolonising means for them to start working towards it with material outcome.

As a student representative, and as part of a SU, I wondered what was our role to approach this issue. Since 2011 reports from NUS, UUK, the OfS  and other sector-wide institutions have been coming: ‘Race Equality Report’, ‘Why is my curriculum White?’, ‘Effective practice in access and participation’ etc. We are all familiar with the statistics: in the UK, fewer than 1% of UK university professors are black, BAME students are 13% less likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 upon graduation, compared to white peers students, , PoC are more likely to face barriers to access to university support services, etc.

But, how do these numbers translate into our students lives? How are students of colour treated at York?

In October 2019, GSA VP Wellbeing Community, GSA VP Academic, and YUSU Academic Officer initiated a campaign to decolonise and diversify the University of York. The focus of the campaign was to work with student groups in order to deliver to the University a Vision of our contributions in the task of decolonising University of York.

As unions in an academic field, we started this campaign by asking ourselves several questions, most of them focused on our role and the different approaches to racial issues in higher education. Some of the questions we opened to our student community and that have accompanied us along the year have been: What’s the difference between decolonising and diversifying? Does the language matter? What do we mean when we refer to decolonise and diversify the curriculum? Does including all marginalised voices/groups/histories etc dilute the problematization of race and coloniality? How do we discuss oppression when we are not part of that community? When and where is our place to discuss? Do black students receive targeted and specialised support that understand their particular needs and experiences? How does racism impact the student community? Are racial conflicts being addressed by our uni? Are black students, and the wider BAME student community, represented in the student representation system at York?

During the past year, both unions have organised several events and workshops that focused on how to decolonise research, looking at good practice at departments in York, questioning how to build an anti-racist student community, and hosting student forums. Central to this campaign has been the role of students, as we wanted to develop a collective student-led vision for a diversified and liberated University of York. I cannot say today that we have found answers, but we have come with a set of recommendations, that have synthesized this year’s debates. The Decolonising UoY SU’s Vision sets up our thoughts in three areas: how to decolonize education, decolonize the community and decolonize the institution.

Some of the issues that students put forward were that they would like to see a University-wide commitment to the anti-racist struggle through creating BAME and gender-specific leadership developing opportunities, developing an anti-racist strategic plan that centers BAME students as a core part of their institutional strategy and explicitly recognising and addressing the BAME attaining/awarding gap setting a target to eliminate it by 2022.

So, these are some of our ideas on where students think we can start working. We are well aware that this is the beginning of the path at UoY, and that this Vision is just summarising our work and some students’ voices to help achieve our goals. We understand how difficult it is to be accountable and responsible as an institution, and engage with inequalities on an institutional level (we’ve all heard how change takes time) and we do not expect this to be immediate, but we, the student unions and students themselves, are expecting this vision to be taken in consideration. We encourage the University of York to listen and act upon some of the suggested changes that our students have proposed.

I would like to end my comments today by reading a brief section of our pledge against racism that we published back in July, as I think it reflects how this path of change hasn’t gone without challenges for the unions too. And I would like to finish by reminding that we are committed to continue bringing together students’ voices, to interrogate the canon,  to challenge discrimination in our community, and to provide our students and staff with the tools to critically identify and fight against power hierarchies.

‘We pledge to educate ourselves, as well as our members, to the injustices facing people of colour and condemn discriminatory attitudes.  We pledge that when we see or experience racism, we will call it out and make sure the appropriate disciplinary processes are in place. We pledge to always ensure that underrepresented student groups have their voices heard; through our representational networks and democratic processes. We pledge to create spaces and experiences for vulnerable groups of students to feel safe, so that they can have a space to build community and flourish.’

24th November 2020