Is Progress On Diversity Heading In The Right Direction?

Is Progress On Diversity Heading In The Right Direction?

Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. Cathy Mayer-Funnel contends with the increasingly hostile environment in the UK towards minority groups and how this is playing out in the university context.

Looking around the UCL campus, one of the things that I have found most striking is the diversity embodied by our students. As someone who did their undergrad in a small city often defined by its population of predominantly white middle-class students from the Home Counties, it is somewhat refreshing to be in a seminar of only six students in which three different continents are represented.

In the 2018-19 academic year there are 9,385 UK domiciled and 12, 865 non-UK domiciled non-white students at UCL, a significant proportion of the student body of 42,106 , while the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committees and Networks available at UCL help to fight discrimination based on gender, sexuality and ethnicity, in amongst other areas too. For those who do not identify as a straight white male it is reassuring that the university at least purports to be on our side – and even those men have the Male Allies Network to help include them in the fight for equality.

Of course, in a city as multicultural and diverse as London this diversity at UCL must surely be expected. Yet politically, this strive towards a harmonious existence seems to be at risk, as the threat of a rather less open-minded agenda looms ever closer on the horizon. With the upcoming Brexit deadline of 29th March (still TBC at time of writing), it is surely a concern that studying in the UK will be a rather less attractive, not to mention expensive, option for our European friends. Currently, an EU citizen studying at another EU country cannot be required to pay higher fees for their course than home students, and are also entitled to the same course grants as national students of the country in question. However, with the uncertain status of incoming EU students once we do leave, it is likely that the number of people coming in from the EU will be reduced and the diversity of the university community will suffer as a result.

With this heightened level of awareness on immigration, a further worry could be that this will dissuade those coming from outside Europe as well, as it is this misinformed suspicion of immigrants that has influenced a number of Leave voters. If this increased hostility spreads, or is directed towards other groups who do not conform to the status quo, then who can say what the negative impact on our student body could be? UCL proudly declares itself to be ‘London’s Global University’ – but will that still be the case if foreign students no longer feel welcome in Britain?

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has stated one popular post-Brexit government proposal that would treat EU and non-EU migrants the same in a single immigration policy which would give highly skilled migrants priority on entering the country. This added bureaucracy will surely make it more difficult to travel for study, as well as increase competition between all international students for a place at one of the most prestigious British universities. Furthermore, the lack of free movement between Britain and the EU threatens the ERASMUS scheme, with the risk of no deal endangering UK participation in the European university exchange, putting many students at UCL and other universities who are about to embark on a year abroad in Europe in a state of unease. Whilst the European Parliament has reassured us that ongoing Erasmus exchanges would continue uninterrupted in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the state of affairs concerning future years is less reassuring.

An atmosphere of intolerance has been pervading our political system, and spilling out onto our streets. This has been particularly felt by the LGBTQ community: according to the National LGBT Survey, people who identify as LGBT are generally less satisfied with their quality of life than the rest of the population, while at least 2 in 5 had experienced some sort of verbal harassment or physical assault in the past year (yet the vast majority went unreported as it ‘happens all the time’). At a time when global technological developments are constantly opening up the world and connecting people from all over the place, it’s worrying to think that in this country we could be closing ourselves off to this.

The situation at UCL is undoubtedly not perfect, and I would never wish to speak for a minority group and say everything is wonderful for them here. But the fact that these organisations exist is testament to the effort that is being made to preserve our university’s accepting and tolerant attitude. This is why the fight for equality taking place amongst our generation is so crucial and why we must aim to take our society into the future, rather than hark back to a false notion of the ‘golden days’ of Britain’s past that we have been sold; a time that we should remember where being gay was illegal, women were seen as second-class citizens, and people could be refused a home for being black.

Image Credit: Brittani Burns via unsplash