We cannot know whether the Cambridge University students who posted an open letter to their English Faculty requesting the decolonisation of “reading lists” (cambridgefly 2017) intended to make legal demands on the university. However, we would be wise to take heed of the many pointers in the text which indicate that curricula –in whichever discipline they are located –that ignores “non-white authors and postcolonial thought” may well bring universities into conflict with their obligations under the Equality Act 2010.
Curricula which “taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism” (cambridgefly 2017) would indicate that a university is paying insufficient attention to its obligation to “exercise its functions” with “due regard to the need to...eliminate discrimination”, contrary to section149 of the Act. Further, the claim that a student who actively seeks to pursue studies in “race, race politics and any literature from outside the UK”, would be perceived as “a nuisance”(cambridgefly 2017) should surely ring alarm bells? Even if it could be proved as fact that students routinely face so dismissive a response to what many might feel is a laudable objective, the claim would fall very far short of the threshold case for unlawful victimisation. I am certain, however, that such a response would not sit well with the obligation (also imposed by virtue of section 149) on public bodies, like universities, to enable marginalised groups to “participate” in their “activities”.
A call upon the law in all but name is a palpably evident feature of many of the published responses to the Cambridge students’ intervention. “Open the doors and let these books in...” was the evocatively titled Guardian article of 11 November 2017. Coming hard upon the launch of the Government’s Race Disparity Audit in October, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that black and minority ethnic groups will struggle to find an intellectual home as they have always struggled to find accommodation to suit their bodily and emotional needs.
In one of the more insightful responses to the open letter, Priyamvada Gopal argued that:
“Decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding. This is particularly important to people not used to seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of conventional learning – whether women, gay people, disabled people, the working classes or ethnic minorities” (Guardian 27.10.2017).
Gopal rightly places the duty to begin the process of decolonisation on a range of social actors, among whom (perhaps) the lawyer is the least significant. But it is worth calling attention to the fact that the Equality Act requirement that public bodies regularly monitor the effect of their functions on protected groups is precisely intended to do the work on the university mirror which Gopal sees as necessary.
In a climate in which “...people are retreating into nationalism, populism and even white supremacy” (Hanif Kureishi, Guardian 11.11.2017) the law must be called upon to eliminate that which it often brings into existence. The assertion of “racial victimhood” of which Pankaj Mishra is understandably wary (Guardian 11.11.2017) may well be the price that has to be paid in return for the protection that the law very occasionally offers to minority groups.
I would join others in their condemnation of the journalists and other commentators who sought to subvert the students’ open letter in an effort to consolidate existing positions of privilege and dominance in the academy. By ensuring that a legal reading of the letter takes place among many other readings, we significantly increase the strength of those determined to engage what will be a long and difficult fight to decolonise university curricula.
Let me conclude with the thought that lurking behind the passionate words of the Cambridge university students is yet another tool with which to work toward the undoing of the more pernicious aspects of the Government’s Prevent Agenda. On the face of it, equality laws do not have the equivalent weight of counter-terrorism laws but they are more deeply embedded in a collective consciousness. The decolonisation agenda can, and will, meet the deradicalisation agenda –force for force.
Cambridgefly, 2017, Decolonising the English Faculty: An Open Letter, 14.6.2017
Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 c.6
Equality Act 2010 c.15
Gopal, Priyamvada. 2017 “Yes, we must decolonise: our teaching has to go beyond elite white men”, Guardian, 27.10.2017
Various contributors, 2017, “Open the doors and let these books in-what would a truly diverse reading list look like?”, Guardian, 11.11.2017