Universities that appear “ideologically inward” when responding to the Black Lives Matter movement may aid critics who want to cut institutions “down to size”, a former minister has said.
Sam Gyimah, former universities minister, has urged establishments to take a “pragmatic approach” when dealing with recent campaigns for statues of historic figures to be removed.
He warned that “nobody passes a purity test” when you look at 19th century statues, adding that universities should focus their efforts on “doubling down” on outreach work to widen access to BAME students and support these students to get good degrees and fulfil their aspirations.
Speaking at the Festival of Higher Education on statues, Mr Gyimah said: “There are some people who had amazing achievements, but also had a dark side. And there are some people who achieve less, but haven’t been fully recognised or celebrated because of their ethnicity.
“I think the trying to, for want of a better phrase, see the world in black and white terms like that isn’t helpful to resolving issues of deep discrimination that exist, that need to be resolved rapidly.
“When universities seem to be places where they’re somehow ideologically inward, or there isn’t a diversity of viewpoint, in this polarised world it gives succour to those who want to cut universities down to size.”
His comments come after the governing body of Oxford’s Oriel college “expressed their wish” to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes following fresh protests amid the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Speaking at the virtual University of Buckingham event, Mr Gyimah also called for a curriculum that “tells the full story” of the country’s history and he urged universities to boost the number of opportunities for BAME academics to reach senior roles to address the “snowy peak syndrome”.
But he added that white people in the higher education sector – including vice-chancellors – should also feel that they have “permission to speak” on subjects like inclusion and diversity.
He urged people against being “woke” – which he described as calling others out “for the sake of it”. Mr Gyimah added: I don’t think this is a black issue. I think it’s an issue for all of us.”
The former universities minister said institutions also need to be “vigilant” around ongoing concerns about poor quality “threadbare courses” and about seeing “students as commodities”.
He added that universities have to win trust from the public and with the students by taking on a civic role, as he warned “turning inward” and being “ivory towers” will not help to build support.
Mr Gyimah, who was universities and science minister from January to November in 2018, admitted that he found the experience as a black student at Oxford “alienating” at times.
When he was MP for East Surrey, a woman at the local town hall questioned whether he was a politician when he was trying to get a birth certificate for his daughter, he told the event.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Gyimah said: “The real issue here is how it punctures your psyche, it becomes part of the way you live and it doesn’t have to be like that.”