York struggles to overcome its reputation for lack of diversity

Are we living in a monoculture? Nicky Woolf and Raf Sanchez take an in-depth look at the underlying reasons for the University of York’s lack of ethnic diversity.

Although the British National Party might have us believe differently, Britain is for the most part proud of its status as a multicultural and multiethnic nation. But anyone who spends even an hour on campus at York will be able to tell that Britain’s minority population is vastly underrepresented here.

UCAS does not suffer from such a derth of ethnicity with 15.9% of total applications made up by Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students, compared to 8.9% of the country’s total population. But the University of York does. The overwhelmingly white composition of the student body fails not only to match up to the UCAS diversity figures, but the national figures as well.

Connie Cullen, from the University’s Admissions and Schools Liaison office, acknowledged this, saying, “The proportion of students at the University of York from minority ethnic groups is smaller than the proportion in higher education nationally.”

The University’s Equal Opportunity policy states, “The University is committed to equality monitoring of undergraduate and postgraduate applications, admissions, progression and achievement,” but the figures would imply that the University initiatives to increase BME representation on campus have not been massively successful.

What effect does this lack of diversity have on prospective applicants? Bukky Ojo, one of YUSU’s Racial Equality Officers spoke extremely positively about her personal experience of arriving at York. “I am the only black student on my course, but rather than try and push the issue away, they were very welcoming, and on my first day I wrote a profile in the University of York prospectus.”

However, Ogtay Huseyni, the chair of Islamic Soc, talks of his surprise upon arrival at York from London and seeing “a sea of white faces… It’s very, very different”. Caren Onanda, one of YUSU’s Racial Equality officers, describes the same feeling.

“There was a lot of racist graffiti in the library toilets, and that was just at the end of last term”

“For me, it was a bit of a shock the first couple of days, but then I just got used to it.” She goes on to say that “for people who aren’t used to [being very much in the minority], I can imagine it’s quite hard… A lot of people are put off because they know it’s not ethnically diverse at all.

So, they think, ‘What’s the point of going there if it’s going to be like being in a fishtank?’”
Huseyni’s experience of arriving at York from London for the first time is a common one, and stems from the fact that London’s ethnic makeup is far more diverse than the city of York’s. But why should the University’s ethnic breakdown reflect the city’s? The introduction to the University’s Race Equality Policy states that “within the wider local community, the University has a key role in promoting diversity, respect and tolerance which, taken together, enhance society’s collective strengths and foster the next generation of learners.”

It is arguably succeeding in the second two, as few BME students who reach York complain of not being treated with respect and tolerance. Onanda describes the few incidents that have been brought to her attention at the Racial Equality office of YUSU. “There was a lot of racist graffiti in the library toilets, and that was just at the end of last term.” She continues, “Another student complained that when they were walking through James, they were semi-attacked.

They were leaving a cultural society meeting, and as they left they had eggs thrown at them.”
She hints that the motivations were not necessarily racial, and is keen to downplay this as an insignificant, isolated incident, saying, “We reported it to the Equal Opportunities officer and we spoke to them and made sure they were getting the right welfare support, and it never went anywhere past that because they were happy.”

Apart from this, the overall picture she paints is of a University that is almost entirely free of racial tensions, and this is generally the belief on campus. It can be argued that the University has so far seen little success in it’s aim to increase diversity. Is York stuck in a vicious cycle where its reputation for lack of diversity is putting off the very people it is working hard to try and attract?

The answer is probably not. All those interviewed expressed hope for the future of York as a truly multiethnic environment. The numbers of BME students at York is increasing year on year. Onanda helps to put things into perspective; now in her third year, she has seen the number of BME students increase exponentially in the two years since she arrived at York as a fresher.
The numbers may still be small in real terms, she explains, but in terms of percentage increase, “it’s huge.” This gradual increase is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the more diverse York becomes the more attractive it will become to students from a BME background.

There is still a long way to go – the presence of ethnic minority students on campus remains small and the percentages are still nearly ten points behind UCAS’, but the situation is gradually improving. York is slowly starting to be viewed as a natural choice for high-achieving BME students, The time and effort invested in encouraging BME students to York is, slowly but surely paying off.

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