Rhodes Must Fall returns along with call for decolonisation in HE

Swell of global anti-racism protests brings hope for change but academics warn ‘we’ve been here before’

June 16, 2020
Source: iStock

The anti-racism protests that have swept the globe following the death of George Floyd have reignited the campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Oxford, as the movement to decolonise the curriculum and stamp out racism in UK universities gains momentum.

Academics and campaigners told Times Higher Education they hoped this was a significant moment in the fight for racial equality in higher education but warned that changes must go deeper than removing symbols that venerate colonialists and slave traders from UK universities − including that of Rhodes, the imperialist remembered for beginning the policy of enforced racial segregation in South Africa.

On 9 June, hundreds of protesters gathered outside Oxford’s Oriel College, where the statue of Rhodes is displayed, following the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, an 18th century slave trader, which was pulled down in Bristol.

The university continued to resist the calls, with Oxford’s vice-chancellor Louise Richardson recently saying that “hiding your history is not the route to enlightenment”.

However, Sarah Brown, the leader of Oxford City Council, said the council believed that “it would be better for the statue to be placed in a museum, such as the Ashmolean or the Museum of Oxford”.

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, a member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began in 2015, said that “a statue on a pedestal is not history, it is veneration; [the campaign] is saying that we don’t want a white supremacist looking down his nose at us as we walk through Oxford…It really is incumbent on the Oriel College, the university and the public more generally to take this opportunity to reflect on the positions they may have held in the past, that they may hold now and to choose to be on the right side of history.”

At the same time, London Metropolitan University has announced that it will remove the name of Sir John Cass from its Art, Architecture and Design School, as it “contributes to the redemption of a man without acknowledging the enormous pain he caused as a major figure in the early development of the slave trade”. Meanwhile, the University of Liverpool said that it would rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone due to his links to the slave trade.

Sofia Akel, a race equality in education specialist, previously at Goldsmiths University, said that “universities that take [the symbols] down recognise that these are traumatic figures for many students to see and hear every day. Universities that refuse to do the same are basically saying that they do not care about the lives of their black and brown students.”

“Taking down a statue doesn’t equate to decolonisation, but it is a necessary step,” she said. “To truly decolonise, what you are doing on the outside must be reflected on the inside.”

Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, agreed. “We are living in a significant moment…but we have been here before,” she warned.

“It is really important universities consider the symbolic meaning of these statues and their links with slavery and oppression, but what we need is real change as they are pulled down,” she said.

“Institutions must address their deeply embedded structural racism, such as the BAME attainment gap, the lack of BAME academics at senior levels and decolonising the Eurocentric curriculum. While universities now say they are looking at this, they should have been doing it already,” she said.

For Jason Arday, assistant professor in sociology at Durham University, “if [the movement] was sustained it could have a huge impact but where will the allies be in three weeks?”

“What makes change is real action; people need to work cohesively across academic disciplines and come up with real solutions,” he said.


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Reader's comments (2)

I suggest we all read Major Barbara, GB Shaw for a reasoned debate on the matter.
Let us look to fix problems, not blame. We cannot judge people of the past by the values of the present. I sometimes wonder what ideas and actions that we find normal and commonplace will be regarded with horror or amazement by our descendants. What we need to do is ensure that the academy moves forwards to a place that is fair and welcoming to ALL students (and indeed academics) irrespective of the colour of their skin (or their gender or whatever non-relevant feature of their being you care to name). Maybe we should stop erecting statues at all, as every human being has flaws. Many of those who did great good have also said and done harmful things. Ask yourself what is more important. What is worth remembering? I bet most of you would prefer to be remembered for the good things you have done, and the 'good' opinions that you have held! Like him or loathe him, Cecil Rhodes is part of our common history. Many students attend Oxford by means of the scholarship that bears his name. I hope none of them will be daft enough to return the money, but will go on to do great and good things of their own.