In a landscape of short-term contracts, precarious teaching positions, and student-as-consumer models, universities are becoming increasingly hostile environments for students of colour, particularly non-EU international students. Responses to the neoliberalisation of higher education institutes have ranged from student-led campaigns and protests to academic discourse. Persistent and tenacious work has led to national tours of campaigns like ‘National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’, ‘Cops Off Campus’, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and ‘Students Not Suspects’, which address a plethora of issues, many of which have been exacerbated by the marketisation of universities.
In spite of such successful collective campaigning, many students are still struggling to have their voices heard by mainstream student movements. In a neoliberal system that forces vulnerable students to rely on unions, and particularly the NUS, to support them in the absence of reliable and permanent institutional structures, it is vital that these students are assisted by and centred within student movements. This is important not only in creating sustained support for vulnerable students, but in envisioning the future of student-led activism.
I want to draw your attention to one woman’s case in particular: Sanaz Raji.
Ms. Raji has been campaigning for justice for four years, since her PhD scholarship was revoked by the Institute of Communication Studies (ICS) at the University of Leeds, leaving her homeless, without an income and on a temporary visa. Following this disgraceful and violent treatment by the University of Leeds, Ms. Raji launched the Justice4Sanaz campaign in order to raise awareness of the treatment of non-EU international students in UK universities, and to help her to eat and have a roof over her head. Ms. Raji has had to rely entirely on the kindness of friends and strangers in order to survive since her scholarship revocation and eviction from her student accommodation.
To get through her ordeal, she has been lobbying SUs to support the Justice4Sanaz campaign, including LUU (Leeds University Union), since 2011. Nine SUs, including KCLSU, SOAS, University of Bradford and Royal Holloway, have passed motions of solidarity with the Justice4Sanaz campaign. However, as the Justice4Sanaz campaign rightly points out, ‘simply passing a motion is not enough’. Ms. Raji and other non-EU international students struggling against institutional violence need tangible and sustained support from SUs; not just cursory nods of acknowledgement.
Fast-forward to the end of this year, Ms. Raji is still seeking justice and fighting homelessness. Having been ignored and side-lined by LUU for more than three years, the events that unfolded surrounding the LUU-sponsored ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ talk at Leeds University, is perhaps not surprising, but nonetheless deeply worrying. The ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ campaign is an important critique of the lack of diversity within university course curriculums, and more broadly, a challenge to white supremacist institutional structures, racism and discrimination on campus. Despite Ms. Raji’s grassroots campaign being at the centre of these issues, particularly in relation to the maltreatment of non-EU international students, LUU neglected to involve Justice4Sanaz in the discussion.
The absence of grassroots campaigners on the event panel is particularly worrisome: why are only academic and NUS voices being centred in a discussion of whiteness in university curricula? Surely grassroots activists’ interactions with and thoughts on, education, teaching and assessment are equally as important? One commenter on the ‘Why is my Curriculum White’ event page, Amrit Wilson, made the important point that ‘Only the privileged would wish to separate what students are asked to learn about race on their curriculum from their everyday experiences of racism from, and at, the University’. Indeed, movements that focus on structures that embed racism and other inequalities within the Academy cannot afford to neglect the everyday experiences of discrimination (in and at the hands of universities) faced by marginalised students and the ways in which these experiences interact with and uphold structures like university curricula.
After publically appealing on the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ event page to LUU’s Education Officer who chaired the event, Ms. Raji also drew attention to the fact that since an NUS officer would be speaking on the event panel, the campaign discussion would be in direct violation of the NUS Black Students’ Campaign motion 102a (the Black International Students Motion) which states that the NUS BSC will ‘support the Justice4Sanaz campaign’. Despite the blatant violation of an NUS motion, which seems to mean very little in practice, Ms. Raji was left with a half-hearted response from the NUS representative and no platform to speak at the event.
In a response to my request to comment on the events that transpired during November’s ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ incident, Melissa Owusu, Education Officer at LUU, said:
‘Unfortunately I was not aware of the Justice for Sanaz campaign prior to organising the line-up for the “Why is my Curriculum White” event, so was unable to incorporate it into the agenda. However, I have reached out to Sanaz but to date my offers of support haven’t been taken up.’
It is important to say at this point that the LUU offered to mention Ms. Raji’s campaign at the beginning of the ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ event at Leeds, but this offer was not followed through and no mention of the campaign nor Ms. Raji’s predicament was made. Moreover, many commenters and onlookers have questioned why Ms. Raji did not accept Ms. Owusu’s proposal to be featured on a future panel at the university. We must continue to remind ourselves that an offer to be featured on an unnamed future panel is not a concrete way in which Ms. Raji can receive support and exposure for her campaign. The LUU and other Student Unions must understand that, in order to support people like Ms. Raji who are in extremely vulnerable and precarious positions, they must provide tangible real-time support as opposed to vague future offers that can easily be retracted or forgotten. Grassroots campaigns like Justice4Sanaz can not rely on empty promises: they need active and timely solidarity from student unions and organisations.
Ms. Raji attended the ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ event on the 26th October with Mr. Tony Erizia, a founding member of the NUS Black Students Campaign. According to multiple accounts of the evening, the event was strictly securitised, which is highly unusual – we can only surmise that a security presence may have been requested by event organisers. After being notified by a union officer, a security staff member approached Ms. Raji to order her to stop filming the event. However, things really got out of order when Ms. Raji began reading her statement of intervention towards the end of the event. According to Mr. Erizia and other witnesses, three large white male security staff members grabbed Ms. Raji as she was reading, and attempted to bundle her down a flight of steps towards the room exits. Mr. Erizia was also physically handled by security when he attempted to intervene in Ms. Raji’s forced exit. After vocalisations of dismay from some audience members, Ms. Raji was able to read her statement, albeit surrounded by security.
It is appalling that Ms. Raji was so blatantly put under surveillance and treated with such contempt in a setting that was meant to provide a platform for the voices of People of Colour. Moreover, it is telling that there have been no official responses to the way she was treated during the event, where security guards bundled Ms. Raji down the venue’s steps while simultaneously a tour discussing Prevent and surveillance (Students Not Suspects) is making its way around universities in the UK. What does this mean if we turn a blind eye to surveillance of students/individuals within the very events we hold when it is convenient to us? What does it indicate about our engagement with broader issues about race and higher education, when we fail to extend support to the very people who are suffering under these structures? How did we allow a Woman of Colour, who is homeless, has no institutional backing, and is currently living with a precarious visa status and no passport, to be silenced during an event about whiteness, race and higher education?
Following Ms. Raji’s and Mr. Erizia’s treatment at the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ event, the Justice4Sanaz campaign sent a formal letter of complaint to the LUU on the 4th November. The letter highlighted and challenged the securitisation of the event, and the silencing of Ms. Raji’s intervention, arguing that:
‘If she [Ms. Raji] and other Black and people of colour cannot have frank discussions and more importantly, support for their activism, then we are afraid that the Why is my Curriculum White event will become little more than a cosmetic performance of caring about racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogynoir while allowing for these very problems to continue without a sustainable response and support for those people and campaigns trying their best to oppose such measures.’
On the 11th November, the LUU issued a response to the Justice4Sanaz campaign’s complaint. In the letter, the LUU emphasise that the event was securitised due to ‘the numbers of attendees’, and that the LUU’s Executive Officers ‘are not mandated to support individual campaigns if they do not wish to do so’.
We remain silent and apathetic to Ms. Raji’s case because it is convenient to turn a blind eye to campaigns that require more sustained and critical solidarity from us. The fact of the matter is that people involved in the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ event at Leeds University felt more comfortable focusing on performing a type of ‘solidarity’, while permitting a vulnerable Woman of Colour activist (who has been at the receiving end of the very institutional violence the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign claims to address) to be berated, silenced and demonised.
For years now, Ms. Raji has been deeply vilified by Leeds University as a vindictive, angry and unstable brown woman. And while one would hope that this would remain the warped cry of a neoliberal university attempting to cover its tracks and invalidate a grassroots campaign’s calls for justice, we are seeing this trope increasingly adopted and invoked by others in an attempt to justify their silence and non-action in light of Ms. Raji’s pleas for support. Ms. Raji should not have to perform a type of victimhood that requires her to be a ‘likeable’ and palatable victim in order to be supported by SUs and the NUS.
But one thing that the Justice4Sanaz campaign has highlighted over the years, is that Ms. Raji is not the only non-EU international student suffering as a result of institutional violence: the abuse of non-EU international students is a systematic issue. The Justice4Sanaz campaign has fought to bring other cases of abuse against international students to the forefront of student campaigns, particularly urgent since such cases are often described as individual incidents. One such case, which both the Justice4Sanaz campaign and BuzzFeed have highlighted, is the plight of a disabled woman of colour postgraduate non-EU international student at LSE. LSE accommodation has failed to provide sufficient housing for her disability – in her own words:
‘What they [LSE management] are trying to do, what they have been trying to do for the past 6 months is just to stretch [this matter] out for as long as possible so I don’t have funds to either stay in the country, to support myself, or to pay for repeat teaching.
The amount of time this has taken me has not only [taken time] for me to recover mobility in my left arm, the emotional distress because I have a disability, the cost which is more than $85,000 US dollars in loans, the physical impact of having to move 4 times.’
Another two devastating examples of abuse of non-EU international students come from SOAS, where one student, Nayantara Premakumar, was kicked off their course for requesting an appropriate supervisor, while Sahil Warsi notes that they have faced struggles similar to that of Ms. Raji’s while having also seen peers face similar institutional discrimination.
So, in light of the ways in which non-EU international students continue to face systematic abuse at their institutions of study, what can we do about it? We need SUs and student campaigns to take a more hard-line stance on supporting grassroots campaigners like Ms. Raji. We need to move beyond petty respectability politics that requires vulnerable students to adopt a certain form of ‘likeable’ victimhood in order to receive solidarity and for their cases to be taken seriously. SUs should, as Warwick 4 Free Education have mentioned, be ‘the highest form of student representation […] created to promote the welfare and voices of students, giving them a platform to engage democratically in University processes and decisions’. If we fail to provide this support to those who need it most, like Ms. Raji and other vulnerable non-EU international students, we are allowing SUs to become neoliberal service providers, rather than platforms for student voices and sites of solidarity.
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Ananya Rao-Middleton is an M.Phil student in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge and a graduate of History and Anthropology BA from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her academic interests include Hindu nationalism, structural violence, gendered surveillance and neoliberalism in South Asia. She writes on intersectional feminism, issues pervading the War on Terror, and politics within South Asia and the UK diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @ananya_rm
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