Why I... think universities need to respond more to changes in society

September 24, 2004

I have been teaching sociology at Westminster University for the past ten years. About three years ago, I noticed a change in the type of students in my classes. There were fewer mature and African-Caribbean students and more young Asian women and overseas students. The change roughly coincided with the introduction of tuition fees.

Some of my classes now contain a majority of Asian women, overwhelmingly British Bangladeshi and Pakistani. And up to a quarter of my students are from overseas or British ethnic minorities other than Pakistani and Bangladeshi. A middle-aged white male lecturer could not ignore these changes.

I distributed a questionnaire to 26 students who were taking a module on race and ethnicity and carried out interviews with some. Thirteen of the group were Muslim and 11 of these said religion was the most important aspect of their identity. Whereas some of the Muslims were sceptical about human rights, the majority of other students said human rights was their most important value. All were opposed to racism, but Muslim students were more concerned about religious discrimination.

How might university teachers respond to diversity of this complexity? Students' own cultures and experience must help shape curricula and pedagogy. Curricula must be global rather than simply multicultural. Most British students in the survey regarded globalisation as the major development affecting Britain, ahead of Europe, race and ethnic issues and even the war in Iraq.

A globally based curriculum requires that the historical experience and contributions of Britain's minorities become an organic part of curricula - not merely an add-on dictated by political correctness. The global context provides a coherent framework within which issues of general relevance or of relevance to specific groups can be studied. What is relevant to one group tends also to have relevance to others so there can be unity within diversity. Thus the concerns of African-Caribbean or white students have not been superseded by those of Asian students. Rather, new developments inform an overall perspective.

Interaction and debate are key in the classroom. Students' cultures are a massive resource that should be shared. How to unlock this resource can test professional skill. This is partly because of the instrumental approach and spoon-feeding typical of secondary education. The transition to higher education can be difficult for all concerned, but that is no excuse for failing to foster independent thought.

Students' cultural backgrounds affect their self-expression.

African-Caribbean culture is relatively verbal, often questioning those who claim authority. Asian cultures tend to be more accepting of authority.

Further, diversity itself can make students mutually reticent. Students of the same ethnic origin sometimes sit together in semi-self-contained enclaves. However, the interviews confirm my experience that students of all backgrounds have plenty of opinions and are well able to express them.

The trick is to stimulate them to do so in the classroom through one-to-one work, group briefings and other approaches.

Good preparation and classroom management can break down barriers and open discussion. I recall in one of my classes a student with a strong commitment to feminism and universal human rights debating female circumcision with an equally passionate young Muslim woman. The air sizzled, but every student was listening and learning.

Encoding antiracism and multiculturalism remain necessary. But "correctness" must not be allowed to stifle debate. It is crucial that Muslim youth have their say. We are far more likely to "lose" young Muslims if they are isolated from public discourse. Paradoxically, the expression of complex diversity is a pre-condition of the social solidarity that many Britons, in all their variety, yearn for.

Mike O'Donnell
Senior lecturer in sociology
Westminster University

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