Oxford is to tackle its colonial legacy amid fears that its global reputation is being damaged by criticism that it admits too few black students.
The University is developing a strategy to challenge its colonial history, which will include the creation of a website setting out its contentious past, the return of treasures seized during the time of the British Empire, and the study of more black and Asian thinkers on degree courses.
The project, which was launched by academics and students following the Rhodes Must Fall protests that called for the toppling of Oriel College’s statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes, has been awarded £20,000 by the University in order to “kick-start” its action, The Sunday Times reported.
It is understood that vice chancellor Louise Richardson has been involved in the discussions.
Prominent diversity campaigner and broadcaster, June Sarpong, is set to launch the website as the project’s first stage later this year to show that Oxford is “dealing with problems linked to racism, classism, and colonialism.”
Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Philosophy, has been invited to join the working group, despite being criticised by other dons last year after launching a five-year study to celebrate “what is good in empire as well as what is bad.”
The University could not confirm The Sunday Times’s claim that members of the working group, chaired by Kalypso Nicolaidis, director of the Centre of International Studies, and Laura van Broekhoven, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, have discussed the possibility of creating a replica of the Cecil Rhodes statue and inviting students to write graffiti, “including swear words”, across it.
Other ideas include the erection of statues to campaigners like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, as well as to some of Oxford’s first students from the commonwealth such as Eric Williams, who led Trinidad and Tobago to independence.
Pro-vice chancellor Rebecca Surender said workshops would be held this year to “consider the opportunities and challenges and practical steps in relation to diversifying the curriculum.”
The working group reportedly raised the idea of creating a new “canon” to replace the study of some “pale stale white men” with black, Asian, female, and gay figures.
The University has agreed to fund the project, Surender says, because it is “exciting, innovative, and very relevant to our current goals . . . We are very happy that this is happening.
“We are going as fast as we can in terms of turning the dial on issues including the number of BME (black and minority ethnic) students at the University,” Surender added.
“We want to signal that we are open for business for everyone: that includes BME and British white working-class students. We want to say, ‘Please apply – we want you to feel comfortable here.’”
In February, data released by Oxford revealed that only two black students were awarded first class degrees in last year’s final examinations. The figures also revealed that 37 per cent of men received first class degrees last summer compared to 29 per cent of women.
Is Oxford doing enough to address its colonial past?
A University spokesperson told Cherwell at the time “it will take time to fully understand the reasons that underlie differences in performance between individuals.”
Earlier this month, figures from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed that Oxford is among the worst British universities for equal access.
According to the report, Oxford accepted fewer applications from poor neighbourhoods in the 2017-18 academic year than any other mainstream institution, with just 2.8 per cent of its intake being from areas classified as the most difficult to engage in higher education.
According to Surender, the proportion of British BME students (including those from China, India, Pakistan, and the Caribbean) rose to 17.9 per cent in 2017 intake.
Nigel Biggar has been involved in an ongoing Twitter spat with Cambridge don Priyamvada Gopal since November 2017, after Gopal criticised Biggar’s description of the British Empire as “morally mixed”. Biggar responded in an article for The Times by calling Gopal’s tweets against his views as “incontinent abuse”.
“Shame on @UniofOxford for hosting a disgraceful bunch of colonialist scholars producing lousy apologetics. This is Oxbridge racism at its finest – the pretence that this supremacist crap can be up for ‘debate’. This version of Oxford Must Fall,” Gopal tweeted in December.
Gopal, who is a Reader in Anglophone and Related Literature at Churchill College, Cambridge and a well-known critic of racism, sexism, and academic eurocentrism, was subject to a virulent Daily Mail smear campaign last week, in which journalist Guy Adams criticised her for writing “posts laced with bile” and deeming her a “prolific internet troll”.
Nicolaidis, chair of the group, has said that Oxford should reexamine its history of slavery in the same way that many American institutions have.
“Oxford too needs to revisit its history. This is about engagement with the student agenda on the relationship between history and the present,” she said.
“I want to see the University I love signal to all students from around the world this is the place they will feel at home.”
Van Broekhoven, Pitts Rivers Museum director, said: “We need to discuss the problems with colonisation – that millions of people were enslaved and exploited to build up wealth in the UK. That was a contentious history we should never forget.”