Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor on structural anti-Blackness at Oxford University

Dear Vice-Chancellor,

We are writing to you on behalf of our constituents, the many thousands of students at Oxford, to express our disappointment at the University’s recent response to the ongoing issues of racial injustice around the world.

On Twitter, the University stated that it was “committed to supporting [its] community in opposing racism in all its forms, including upholding anti-racist values.” This was followed by a link to resources and information around the University’s work to promote diversity.

Quite rightly, the reaction to this from the student population as well as the broader population has been overwhelmingly critical. The response failed to acknowledge the institutional anti-Blackness and racism of the University and commit to tackling it.

Earlier this week, Oxford SU released a statement expressing our solidarity with those protesting police violence and systemic racism in the US and UK which we have shared with you. In that statement, we urged the University to “address the specific issue of anti-Black racism, acknowledge the imperialist foundations upon which it was built and commit to decolonising.”

Historian Richard Symonds has written of the observation from Cecil Rhodes that wherever he would go in the British Empire, he would find Oxford men on top. Oxford’s history is one deeply entwined with imperialism. The institution has both benefited from it and helped to promote it. That legacy is still deeply felt. It was only a few years ago that Oriel College refused to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes.

In November, a Black alumnus of St John’s, whilst visiting his old college, was asked by a porter if he would “rob” his college during his time as a student there. Students of colour will report countless stories of being racially profiled by porters and of doubt being cast on their membership of a college.

Oxford admits a very small number of Black students each year and the Black attainment gap persists. The Access and Participation Plan goes some way in attempting to tackle these issues - the student body must be reassured that the pandemic will not adversely affect the University’s commitment to the targets that it has set. Whilst some progress has been made in addressing BAME access issues at the undergraduate level, the same must be done at the graduate level.

A lack of ethnic diversity, particularly Black representation, persists amongst the tutors at Oxford and at the top of the University where decisions are made. It is only last year that the first ever Black head of an Oxford college was appointed.

We appreciate recent meetings with the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education, Martin Williams, and the Pro Vice-Chancellor and University Advocate for Equality and Diversity, Rebecca Surender, on issues of racial equality. More must now be done.

We understand that the coronavirus pandemic has greatly disrupted the University’s workings and resources are being prioritised towards addressing the fallout of this. However, tackling racial inequality at Oxford must also be an urgent priority. 

We therefore call upon the University to:

  1. Release a more comprehensive statement which specifically acknowledges anti-Black racism, expresses solidarity with the international Black Lives Matter movement and Black students at Oxford, condemns the ongoing issue of police violence predominantly directed at Black people both here and in the US, recognises and apologises for the deep failings around anti-Blackness and racism at Oxford, and commits to integrate anti-racism into every part of the University. 
  2. Use its platform to lobby the Government around the issue of systemic racism within Higher Education by writing a letter to the Minister of State for Universities calling on the Government to take action on racial disparities within Higher Education, working in close collaboration with the National Union of Students. It is imperative that every institution utilises their platform to push for structural change within our society. Oxford can and must lead on this.
  3. To promote the University’s welfare provisions to students and commit to diversifying the staff that deliver welfare support, for instance by hiring more Black counsellors in the Counselling Service. The Mental Health Strategy launched earlier this academic year is a good step towards ensuring the welfare of our Black and ethnic minority students but it must be seen as a first step. There is still more work to be done in embedding anti-racism into welfare across the University.
  4. To reaffirm the University’s commitments around race in the Access and Participation plan, including the target to halve the attainment gap for Black students to 6% by 2024-25. Students must also be updated on the progress of the graduate access strategy and how it will centre race equality and diversity. The University student body must reflect the wider population and Black students must not be structurally held back from achieving the same as their white peers.
  5. To commit to decolonising the curriculum and reading lists. Curriculums in Oxford are often too eurocentric. The academic contributions of people of colour, particularly Black people, and women must no longer be ignored.
  6. To promote the University’s complaints procedure and harassment policy to students, outlining the different avenues through which students may wish to take a complaint, and encourage colleges to do the same. Support available for students making a complaint such as the ability to act through a representative must also be highlighted.
  7. To release information to students on what the University is doing to ensure that the academics who teach us, and those at the top of the University who make policy decisions that affect students, reflect the racial diversity of our society.
  8. Make the equality and diversity training given to staff as an option to become mandatory and encourage colleges to do the same. Anti-racism must not be seen to be the purview of staff purely within the Equality and Diversity Unit, but embedded throughout the entire collegiate University.
  9. Commit to paying all staff the Oxford Living Wage, including subcontracted staff. The University recently adopted the Oxford Living Wage but this did not apply to subcontracted workers. Staff on minimum wage are disproportionately women and ethnic minorities. In line with the demands of the Oxford Living Wage Campaign, we call upon the University to release a timeline and plan to pay all workers the Oxford Living Wage. This is an issue of racial equality and justice.

The above is not a comprehensive list of all that can be done by the University. We support other students who have written to yourself and others at the top of the collegiate University in their calls for Black liberation.

We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Anisha Faruk, President, Oxford SU
Ray Williams, Vice-President (Access and Academic Affairs), Oxford SU
Kaya Axelsson, Vice-President (Charities and Community), Oxford SU
Neil Misra, Vice-President (Graduates), Oxford SU
Róisín McCallion, Vice-President (Welfare and Equal Opportunities), Oxford SU
Amber Sparks, Vice-President (Women), Oxford SU


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