Universities minister: removing Rhodes statue would be ‘short-sighted’

Michelle Donelan says that we ‘cannot rewrite our history’, while also addressing student number control controversies

June 17, 2020
Michelle Donelan

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, believes that recent moves by universities to rename buildings, and campaigns to remove the statues of those with links to slavery or racism, are “short-sighted”.

During a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Ms Donelan said that while “racism is abhorrent and shouldn’t be tolerated”, she agreed with Boris Johnson that “we should not seek to censor or edit our past”.

She said that recent actions, such as the reignited movement to remove the statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford and the University of Liverpool’s decision to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone due to his links to the slave trade, are “quite short-sighted". She added: “We cannot rewrite our history; instead what we should do is remember and learn from it.”

However, campaigners and supporters of Rhodes Must Fall, who gathered outside Oriel College again on 16 June in protest, have said the statue should be removed because it gives Rhodes, who is remembered for beginning the policy of enforced racial segregation in South Africa, “inappropriate honour and prestige”. The campaign has also called for better teaching about Britain’s imperial past and for decolonisation of the curriculum in UK universities.

London Metropolitan University also recently said it planned to remove the name of Sir John Cass from its Art, Architecture and Design School, because 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”.

Ms Donelan said she agreed with those who said that plaques next to statues explaining their history were a better route. “If you look at the Holocaust Memorial Trust and what they do on education, it’s all about ensuring that the next generation are aware of our past and remember it and learn from it and that is just one of the many examples of how we can ensure that as a society we do learn from our history,” she said.

During the webinar, she also addressed concerns about the duration of student number controls in the UK, recently introduced as a measure to mitigate the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis on universities. Ms Donelan said that the cap “is designed to deal with the ramifications of the coronavirus on the higher education sector, so by the very nature it is temporary; it is just the academic year 2020-21.”

She added that the same applied to the Office for Students’ proposed regulatory condition, which would allow it to intervene where universities are deemed to be acting in ways that undermine students’ interests or threaten the stability of England’s higher education sector.

“We have been seeing activities that were putting students under real undue pressure, like 30,000 unconditional offers in a week alone, so the controls we’ve asked for will allow them to work out what is right for them,” she said.

Addressing complaints from the devolved nations that there will also be a cap on the number of English students who can study at institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Ms Donelan said “the reality was we had to introduce something that would help stabilise the system”.

English institutions had called for the cap and the Westminster government had to “make sure we didn’t create a system whereby institutions in Wales or Scotland could in effect use aggressive recruitment and make the policy null and void”, she said.

“All we’ve done is toward the English student finances so…it’s completely within the realms of devolution,” she added.

Ms Donelan also announced that the OfS had awarded £3 million to launch a new platform, Student Space, that would provide mental health support for students. It is designed to respond to additional pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

Michelle has a BA in History and Politics. She knows very well that with every article, with every book historians publish, they are literally re-writing history. She cannot claim ignorance here, unless her lecturers failed to instil this very basic stuff into her. It makes you wonder. If she doesn't know such a basic thing, her degree may have gone over her head. If she does, then why the denial of something so basic?
There is a difference between continuing to study and interpret history and totally rewriting it to suit your own agenda. The former is what historians do, the latter is dangerous and quite rightly should be derided.
No one said "totally" rewriting it, but just plainly rewriting it. You can, of course, adapt my words to suit your own agenda. And yes, believe it or not, and this may come as a shock to you, we do rewrite history every day. We go to archives, find documents that question our current knowledge of a topic, and then write articles and books that either "totally" disprove previously held assumptions and beliefs, or that question and/or partially change that knowledge.
Removing a statue that glorifies an individual whose ideals are no longer in line with modern Britain is not editing, censoring, or rewriting history. If you want to learn about history, you read a book. You do not go around looking at statues - unless you're interested in, say, the history of sculpture. History is written down, not cast in bronze. Statues are there to glorify people and if they are no longer considered worthy of that admiration, then the statues must come down. Put them in a museum if you care so much about preserving them.

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