Rhodes Must Fall – should Oxford fall too?

What does the crucial campaign about Cecil Rhodes mean for fighting for alternative structures and ways of doing higher education.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford has been one of the most important and vocal student campaigns of this academic year. This morning it forced a public response from the chancellor of the University of Oxford. The English elite is being forced to confront its colonial legacy and it doesn’t like it. Little surprise given that it strikes at the very heart of an institution which is integral to maintaining the legitimacy and domination of the English elite.

Lord Patten, Chancellor at Oxford asked where would it stop if we were to give in to the group and remove the statue. So many buildings housing major institutions of the British establishment were built with the ill-gotten, blood-soaked funds of the British Empire. The fact that it has sparked such media uproar on the right and the liberal left, reflects how little debate there has been about the historical legacy of the British empire. There has never truly been any Vergangenheitsbewältigung, coming to terms with the past, of the sort that happened in the two Germanies and continues in the unified state, since 1945. Hopefully with this upsurge in activism which challenges the left on issues of race as well as the establishment and greater discussion of Britain’s colonial legacy, this will begin to change.

For higher education, and the British elite the debate has opened up a can of worms. From an institutional perspective, it asks serious questions of the role of these universities. Above all, it makes us see how colonialism is woven into the physical fabric, the very architecture of our universities. The expansion and reform of Oxford and Cambridge in the late 19th century was reliant, directly or indirectly, on money from the Empire.

More than that, Oxbridge taught generations of colonial administrators and continues to train national and international elites who are deeply implicated in new forms of oppression. This asks all sorts of questions of the British establishment which in all honesty, it has no good answers to. Beyond this confrontation about the past, though this campaign is also about curriculum and everyday treatment of students of colour, what does Rhodes Must Fall Oxford mean for the structure of UK higher education as a whole?

 If there is an area where questions[1] could be asked of the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign from the left, then I think is in relation to how issues of race at Oxford differ from those elsewhere in British higher education. The University of Oxford has serious issues with how it treats students of colour – this has been obvious throughout the RMF Oxford campaign but was also clear beforehand. Educational institutions of the British elite have long and largely unacknowledged or forgotten histories of racism, with Eton College being a case in point.

Within the UK however, the biggest racial divide in higher education is between the Russell Group and the post-1992 sector. Ethnic diversity in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of elite institutions (London, Oxford and Cambridge) actually got worse between 2006 and 2010, when there were nearly 10 times as many black students in post-1992 universities than at these universities at the apex of the English system.

This situation is changing and organisations exist which deliberately, but I would argue problematically, seek to challenge this racial divide:

Rare is passionate about creating a more equal society. We believe that if more black people get in to Oxbridge, more black people will reach the top of our society. Target Oxbridge is our contribution to making that happen.

The problem here is that we want a society where universities are more open, less racist and yes clearly that means more students of colour at Oxford. But surely we do not want to simply replace a largely white, male elite with an elite which has more people of colour, women and LGTBQ individuals. The discourse of organisation Rare seems to imply simply a more diverse elite. In the here and now and speaking pragmatically this matters, but it is not enough. We want to push beyond this, we have to push beyond this otherwise our activism is nothing but the re-legitimizing of the status quo where an elitist form of higher education reproduces a more acceptable hierarchical social structure.

It might seem like these questions are not relevant to a campaign which has as its focus the colonial legacy and symbols of this which adorn institutions of the British elite. My question, and it is a friendly one, is if those symbols are removed (and they must be) and the curriculum was changed, what type of higher education system would we be left with? The institutional hierarchy would still be there – Oxford would still be an institution of the elite, London Metropolitan University, if it survives the current cuts, would still be dominated by local, first-generation students of colour/working-class students. We want a university which is de-colonised and anti-sexist. But we also want a university which do not have as a central function the creation of elites.

The violence of a symbol is powerful, especially in a country which does so little to acknowledge its colonial past. But the University of Oxford is fundamentally a site of symbolic violence – it has been the site of the creation of national and international elites for hundreds of years. The attraction of Oxford and Cambridge to some international students is not only as centres of knowledge – like the elite ‘public’ schools[2] that feed into them, they represent the deep ossification and persistence of the British elite. This south-eastern, pseudo-aristocratic, now finance-led class has long dominated British society and, with waning influence, parts of the rest of the world. The violence is silent and these institutions find legitimation through the dreamy spires image – fairy-tale medieval places of learning, where Rhodes and others like him have been, until now, invisible.

Making Rhodes visible as a sign of colonial and racial oppression has to be simultaneously wedded to making the classed violence of Oxbridge visible too. We have to fight for a new form of higher education and this means fusing our struggles for a university which is not colonial and racist, capitalist, classist or sexist. Centres of knowledge must exist but do we ultimately wish to study in institutions which perpetuate these different forms of violence?

Beyond Rhodes Must Fall, the real question we have to ask is, should Oxford fall too?

[1] I used this term in the loosest sense, this is not about criticism rather about adding to the debate.

[2] These are private fee-paying schools which are referred to as ‘public schools’ in British English.

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