By Sarah Edgcumbe
The Times newspaper is at it again. Since the 1st October, it has been attempting to whip white British right-wingers into a fury by portraying freedom of speech as being in danger. According to The Times, students (read: white students) are falling prey to authoritarian demands that they accept “personal guilt” at St Andrews University. Odd, that only since it beat Oxford and Cambridge to the title of the UK’s top university, has the paper fixated on St Andrews’ supposed institutional villainhood like a rabid dog.
I am not a tribal person, particularly when it comes to university affiliations. However, I am happy to declare that I am extremely proud to be associated with the University of St Andrews. Not because of the fact that it has replaced Oxbridge as the top university in the UK, though this is certainly an achievement, but because of the academic and epistemological approach employed by faculty members that I have interacted with throughout my time there. An academic culture based upon reflection, reflexivity, inclusion and critical thought is actively fostered at St Andrews, by both student bodies and staff alike. One result of this culture has been the introduction of four mandatory modules that students must pass in order to matriculate, on the topics of sustainability, consent, good academic practice and diversity. Each module takes approximately one hour to complete.
The Times has found out about this, and it is incensed. It is hard initially to understand why these short modules have provoked such a furious reaction from the paper. Amid a climate catastrophe and a years-long pushback against a culture of widespread sexual misconduct, modules on sustainability and consent seem both appropriate and timely. A module on good academic practice being delivered at an institution of higher education is hardly outrageous. A module on diversity underpinned by the recognition of entrenched discrimination and historical power imbalances is progressive, not threatening.
Only one who is hell-bent on gobbling up Earth’s finite resources for profit, who thinks they have the divine right to use another person for their own sexual gratification, who plagiarises and lies with abandon, and who is a wilfully ignorant misogynistic racist, would look so unfavourably on the introduction of these mandatory modules. The trick here, of course, is that it is exactly those kinds of people whose interests the right-wing press and the establishment represent. In fact, the above description fits no-one so well as Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Perhaps if these introductory modules were also mandatory for new government ministers, we would find ourselves in less of a mess.
The Times, in its fairly nonsensical article, highlights a particular question in the diversity module as a signal of impending doom. The question asks “Does equality mean treating everyone the same?” The article complains that students who respond “yes” are told this answer is incorrect, and that in fact “equality may mean treating people differently and in a way that is appropriate to their needs so that they have fair outcomes and equal opportunity.” Such an understanding, though antithetical to the editors of The Times, is quite rightly becoming increasingly understood and promoted in academia and wider society. Historically, social institutions favoured certain groups, whilst enslaving others. British society was industrialised and developed through the unpaid labour of people who continue to be discriminated against and marginalised today. People of colour and the working class are underrepresented in positions of influence and power in contemporary Britain: this is evidence of the privilege some of us experience to the detriment of others. During the same module on diversity, St Andrews University asks students to recognise that “it is important to think about and understand our own prejudices and stereotypes, so we don’t treat someone else unfairly or inappropriately.” This acknowledgment of privilege and concurrent exploration of how to dismantle it scares the Conservatives to death.
Boris Johnson attended a private school, followed by Eton College and then Oxford University. Two thirds of ministers had that served in Johnson’s 2019 cabinet attended private schools. As of 2017, just 7% of children in the UK attended private schools, but 48% of Conservative MPs had received a private school education. Less than 1% of the British population study at Oxford or Cambridge, compared to 26% of MPs and 75% of all UK Prime Ministers. The link is clear: private schools disproportionately lead to Oxford or Cambridge, which in turn open gates to positions of power which are barricaded against most of us. Private school fees are extortionate, affordable only to those with massive inheritances or huge incomes – but for the British elite, money is no object. The UK is one of the countries with the greatest wealth inequalities in the developed world, with the most well-off Brits hoarding 40% of the country’s total income. This outrageous system of wealth and power inequality is deliberately sustained by both the Conservative government and their media pals at the NewsCorp-owned Times and other publications. Of course, these Eton and Oxbridge-educated neo-aristocrats like to give themselves credit for the positions of power they have obtained – “we live in a meritocratic society!” they cry. Only we don’t. They got to their private schools and parliamentary seats through a fetid combination of stolen land and profits reaped from slavery; hoarded wealth and corrupt, back room deals. They are the product of centuries of social injustice, the captains at the helm of a broken nation.
There is a saying that privilege is evident when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally. I therefore applaud St Andrews University and its student groups who led the charge, for asserting that students must remove their blinkers if they wish to study there. Social justice cannot exist where so many continue to be faced with barriers to opportunity that others are not even aware of. We cannot dismantle systems of oppression without first recognising them. This is not an assault on academic freedom or freedom of speech. Nor is it “indoctrination”, as claimed by former Conservative Universities Minister Chris Skidmore (who also attended a private school in Bristol before graduating from Oxford University). It is a first step towards addressing the head start that some students are provided through an accident of birth. I sincerely hope that more universities will follow St Andrews’ lead. I also long for the demise of private schools, The Times and the Tories, but hey, one step at a time.
Featured image credit: St Andrew’s University, St Saviour’s College: Stu Smith via Flickr
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