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Travellers' tales from the University of East London: the experience of 'Black' adult learners

Kimani Nehusi and David Gosling
University of East London

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 31st Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2001, University of East London

THIS study records work in progress on 'Black' students' perceptions of their experience of higher education at UEL. This is a qualitative study which does not claim that its findings are generalisable, or that these students are representative. Jiwani et al (1996) undertook a survey of nearly 1,000 students to investigate their views on a range of factors. This study attempts to capture some more individual views of the hurdles 'Black' students face within a university with a strong commitment to multiculturalism.

The major value of this work is the insights it provides into a range of issues that it raises.

The sample

The group studied is a random, though not a randomised, sample of UEL students. All are descendants of Afrika1, who were either born in the UK of parents arriving directly from Afrika or from the Caribbean or who themselves arrived in the UK directly from one of these two geographical locations or, in the case of one exception, was born in Afrika and arrived in the UK from another European country.

The group is further characterised by being: - almost exclusively female (12 out of 13) ; - predominantly parents (10 of 13), mostly single mothers (8 of 12 women, lone male a father) - adult learners, with 1 aged 22, 2 aged between 26 and 30 and the rest over 31 - most arrived at UEL via the access route (7 of 13, with 1 unavailable).

In addition the subjects represent a good spread of departments (Business and Computing 1, Cultural Studies 1, ECS 2, Law 1, Psychology 1, Sociology 3, Surveying 1, Education and Politics 1, with 2 unavailable) as well as stages in their university careers (3 in year 1; 2 in year 2; 4 in year 3; 2 who have withdrawn; 2 not available). Overall 9 out of a total of 24 university departments are represented in the sample.

The starting place

The majority of those questioned (What is your identity?) responded by locating themselves or placing their origins in a specific geographical region (Afrika, The Caribbean or the United Kingdom) and also clearly pointing to culture and less frequently membership of a nation state as a major determinant of self ('Afro-Caribbean', 'Black Afrikan', 'Nigerian').

This may refer to a sense of shared or similar values, customs and history, including belonging to a disadvantaged community. However, in view of some of the comments of individuals within this group, it is quite likely that this notion of solidarity is reinforced by consciousness of being perceived as a distinctive group by the dominant majority in British society and within UEL.

An important aspect of identity is individual characteristics - those personal experiences, knowledge and skills, aptitudes and attitudes that together render each person unique. This is therefore a part of our notion of starting place, especially since these factors tend to make each journey highly individual.

The idea of identity is sufficiently complex (Gilroy, 1993, Modood, 1994) as well as important to render it at once fairly elusive and ubiquitous in most persons' notion of themselves. Perhaps the view of one respondent, a 37-year old mother in Year 1, is an accurate formulation. ' I take on different identities at different times: mom, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, woman, student. And underlying all of that is the fact that I am a Black. I have multiple identities. But one can have perceived identities.'

The journey

Studies of students in HE in the UK suggest that in educational terms students with the profile described above translates into a group who are likely to need significant support during their journey, since they have each been away from academic study for a long period and initially tend to lack of self-confidence.

The University of East London has a stated mission to support widening participation, valuing diversity, lifelong learning and multiculturism (Cohen,1995, Jiwani and Gosling, 1997). However, students in this sample have a remarkably different view of the institution. This demonstrates the gap that can exist between an institution's view of itself and students' experience and perceptions of it.

Students in this group have almost universally experienced UEL in negative ways and continue to perceive the institution as a necessary challenge to attain the goal of self-improvement as well as to reach other destinations. The tale of one 37-year-old learner from Nigeria, a single mother who has lived in the UK from the time she was 11, earned a first degree at 22, returned to study after a long interval and is now in Year 2, is mostly typical of the lives of this group of travellers: The policy of UEL does not reflect the cultural mix of the university.

There are just not enough facilities ... The way lectures are structured does not cater enough for mature students - especially those with children.

There is not enough Black staff within UEL.

I don't feel welcomed at UEL. The information desk does not have enough staff to give information - especially non-white staff to tell about things available for Black people.

The teaching staff does not reflect the ethnic mix of the students even though it is important that it does. Maybe the authorities do not think that it is important that they attract Black staff. Everything is all superficial, all talk and no action. UEL is not situated way out in white areas.

It is in East London, a mixed area. I know only about four Black lecturers in the entire UEL.

These very issues of institutional culture, attitude of lecturers, perceived need for many Black lecturers, the Eurocentric curriculum and academic support were also the concerns of almost every other learner interviewed.

The institution

A few had no specific expectations of UEL, though for most it turned out to be different from what they imagined after reading the publicity and or attending an open day. The group also felt that there is not enough flexibility and support for people with children, UEL is not always user friendly, that there is not enough academic support generally and that their experience of UEL generated feelings of discomfort, alienation, of not being represented and of not being a part of the institution.

Here is a sample of responses received: There is nothing there that reflects my culture. Socially, no. They do not cater for Black people.

Multiculturism is just a word they use to cover up whatever. There is no valuing of diversity, just a whole load of words.

UEL is no different from the rest of British society. UEL would like to believe that it is very much culturally aware ... quite liberal, that it takes into consideration the various cultures of people, that it is quite inclusive. But it is just like other institutions ... still marginalises other people... can be quite an isolating place.

UEL values diversity from the point of view of persons attracted from all backgrounds. They get money out of them. But they (UEL) do not provide for all of them.

Lecturers

The major points made are that lecturers are overwhelmingly white, biased, even prejudiced, intemperate with different perspectives from theirs, unhelpful, too critical and seem to judge people according to their social and cultural background, though two reported no problems with lecturers.

Here is a sample of the comments: Black students on the whole are patronised and under marked. White lecturers tend to have low expectations of most Black students. If they can't find fault with [your assignment] you are told that you didn't do it.

Students were also told that it was impossible for them to get a first, as only two or three people get that. 'Imagine what that does to you mentally. I am not even aiming fora first.' Tutors tend to massage you along as long as you stay within the boundaries of their expectations.

Staff tended to be too critical instead of helpful ... across the board, not just a Black thing. They knocked your confidence. Feedback was not provided enough ... you were made to feel that you have no intelligence ... treated like school children ... patronised ...terrible.

The importance of and need for more Black lecturers

Some students were very vocal in their statement of what they perceived as a need: Barnor [Hesse], Kimani [Nehusi], Lionel Mc Calman and Jayne [Ifekwunigwe] made life easier. These lecturers helped to resolve many problems and encouraged this student to carry on. Many students would have dropped out without them.

Black lecturers teach our culture from a lived perspective.

White lecturers turn around and try to justify enslavement, et cetera.

Lecturers seem open minded and knowledgeable etc. but one wonders why there are no Afrikan lecturers.

A significant point in a university in which 'Black' (i.e. non-white) people comprise over 50% of the clients but merely 9% of the academic staff is the impact this discrepancy has on students' own self-confidence. The lack of role models is a severe disincentive to 'Black' students.

Academic support

There was some good support, but overall this group was disappointed with what they received: I had been away from education for a long time and expected support like when I did 'A' levels. Support was not there. I speak for myself and quite a few friends.

UEL has in place a system of student support that compares favourably with what is available across the HE sector. In interaction with one of the authors (Nehusi) several students have observed that they find it difficult to retain immediately all the information to which they are exposed at induction. The possibility of a significant incidence of low recall of publicity materials suggests a number of issues about the nature as well as the timing and frequency of communication with this group. It may be possible that the group prefers direct (personal, face to face) rather than indirect communication (publicity materials on display). One possible solution may be to repeat publicity throughout the academic year as well as channel it through persons in direct communication with members of this group, including members themselves.

The curriculum

Three learners felt that their academic needs were being met while the others experience the curriculum as a Eurocentric one that excludes and alienates Black people: Black people don't matter as they are not included in the curriculum. This makes life more difficult because part of what is left out is 'me'. This is sad, but it is expected and that is the real sadness.

UEL is very multicultural ... [but] the curriculum is not multicultural. History, Afrikan Studies, Asian studies are not on the curriculum. ... Lots of psychological studies by white middle-class Americans and English, but there are no representations of Afrikans in studies people are undertaking, or who are lecturers or the people being studied.

One direct result of enslavement and colonisation was the development, by the oppressing European powers, of distorted representations of their victims. These were designed to justify the atrocities committed against other peoples and were based on the very racist notion that Europeans were inherently superior to other peoples and cultures. Such notions were articulated in almost every division of knowledge within academia (Achebe, 1990, 2000, Amin, 1989, Chinweizu, 1987a, 1987b, Cabral, 1980, Fanon, 1965 and many others). Many of these notions still underlie many of the assumptions of the institutions of the United Kingdom (what McPherson has referred to as 'institutional racism') and indeed of most western and western-influenced institutions. Scholars and intellectuals of many peoples, including Europeans, have undertaken a counter discourse designed to examine and correct the distortions of Eurocentricism. Among Afrikan people this discourse is termed Africentricism. A growing number of people of Afrikan descent have become aware of alternative accounts of their own histories and societies from sources outside of the academy, since they have more often been unable to pursue them adequately within HE. Whether this is the result of a conscious policy of deliberate omission or a failure to appreciate the importance of alternative perspectives may well be a matter for conjecture. However, it is to be noted that critical engagement with all relevant perspectives is supposed to be a cornerstone of the western academy.

There is evidence that conflict between some lecturers at UEL and some students in this sample stemmed from students' perception that many lecturers subscribe to a worldview that is still based in these negative notions of 'others', especially people of Afrikan descent.

The question this raises is whether the power relations of colonialism are reproduced and sustained in the curriculum and in the lecture rooms of British higher education institutions.

Lifelong learning

This concept is an obvious attraction for mature returners to academia. It is therefore not surprising that all who responded to this question found it a good idea, or that most of these classified themselves as lifelong learners.

Lifelong Learning is a good idea. It offers chances for those permanently excluded.

Traditionally I would be called a failure but thanks for the introduction of another chance for the late people like me ...

Negotiating strategies

Feelings of exclusion have led many to opt consciously for non-participation in co-curricular activities, avoiding voicing their feelings in order to succeed, and working hard. Some saw the cultural background of Afrika or the Caribbean the basis of their ability to get through One student gets unofficial assessment of her work from outside UEL.

I have had to be committed, disciplined, keep selfmotivated, constantly keep on top of the situation, identifying lots of strategies: schedules, reflective practise, sharing tasks, resource persons to help - not just academically, but also social responsibilities (children).

It is quite possible that a major, perhaps the major source of these strategies for success are the experiences that this category of learners bring with them into academia. It has been the counselling practice of one of the researchers (Nehusi) to validate the experiences of learners by getting them to recognise the parenting, home management and organisational skills and knowledge which many bring to UEL, then working with them to transfer these skills and knowledge to the negotiation of the tasks of academia. This has been a powerful source of improved self-concept, motivation and empowerment of individuals within this group.

It should not be imagined, however, that learners are incapable of transferring, on their own initiative, the relevant skills, knowledge and insights developed in their previous experiences and deploying them to meet the challenges of academia.

What adult learners - more so than 'inexperienced' learners - can and often do bring with them to the starting place of their journey through academia is experience. This experience is at least a potential source of valuable knowledge, skills and insights. Their value lies in their transferability, in their use in the tasks of academia. For these reasons relevant experience may be considered a valid aspect of starting place in the academic journey.

Narratives of their own lives do not amount to a totally negative experience of a negative representation of themselves. Some consciously try to turn negative into positive.

Destinations

It may be expected that the disadvantages which 'Black' students face in the employment market would impact upon their view of what they should be learning. The emphasis upon such destinations as personal development, graduate study, community work and teaching may be a reaction to this, but the evidence here is not conclusive.

Many students feel that they are not really equipped for the job market by UEL, that it is experience which prepares one for the job market and that is good to have job experience before studying at university.

Teaching was chosen either because of the perception that Black children are not given a fair chance in the education system and all children should be shown that they can achieve, that there is a different interpretation of history - one wider than was thought at school, or Teaching is a fall back in case a student was not be tops in chosen field, s/he would still have something to offer society.

Personal development is not fully recognised or measured in conventional academic practice. In the context of an apparently widely-perceived attainment ceiling this sample has apparently created a new destination of the academic journey. Some emphasis is placed upon this destination, which may be highly valued by this group precisely because it is their creation for the purpose of subverting the perceived intentions of lecturers, who have no means of assessing it and therefore cannot subject it to the biases and prejudices perceived by learners.

Are there any ghosts here?

There are ghosts of lost travellers on the highways and by ways of academia, but our investigation suggests that these do not always haunt travellers.

This evidence suggests that the example and experiences of those who did not arrive at the desired destination are often perceived as sources of lessons, warnings and motivation by those still on the journey.

It may be argued that this conclusion is sustained by the evidence provided by those lost travellers themselves, though only two were interviewed. Further, both dropped out for medical reasons, perceive their situation to be temporary interruptions rather than failure to arrive at the destination, and plan to continue their journeys later. This may not be the universal experience of those who do not arrive at the final destination. The experience of UEL indicated that students of Afrikan descent, in common with others, also get lost on the academic highways and byways for a variety of reasons, but that drop out rates among students of Afrikan descent are higher. The ghosts of lost travellers do litter the course of academia, but this group appears to have converted them to signposts to a final destination.

Transformations

The perceptions and expectations of this group have changed. Many have made personal changes made in order to negotiate UEL successfully; for others personal transformation is a destination.

Learners have become more independent, cynical, critical of what others say, tougher and more serious about what to do with their personal lives: "Now I am more discriminating of information received and often acquire more information." This learner is more reluctant to accept racism and has developed more self-confidence.

I am not sure if I am a better person, but certainly I am a different one. More equipped now... benefited from negative experiences.

I am a better person now ... I know the value of sacrifice now.

Even if I came out with an unclassified degree, which I don't expect to, it would have been an overall positive experience, a learning experience.

I am constantly evolving. These experiences have allowed me to think, act, look, talk in different ways, not necessarily from one but from different perspectives.

Conclusions

The main conclusion from this small sample of 'Black' students is that there remains a significant gap between their view of their experience of the university and what the university believes it is providing (as evidenced in official statements and policy documents). It appears that the university is failing to meet the perceived needs of these students, and/or that it is failing to communicate successfully with them. Their needs are neither being met at the practical level of crèche facilities, nor at the level of understanding and regarding the students' race and culture, historical experience, gender and personal characteristics such as single parentage.

References

Achebe, C. (1990) "Song Of Ourselves" New Statesman and Society, February

Achebe. C. (2000). "Africa's Tarnished Name" in H. Wylie and B. Lindfors (eds.) Multiculturalism and Hybridity in African Literatures Trenton and Asmara: Africa World Press, Inc.

Amin, S. (1989) Eurocentricism New York: Monthly Review Press.

Anderson, B.(1991) Imagined Communities London: Verso Publications.

Cabral, A. (1980) Unity And Struggle Heinemann.

Chinweizu (1987a) DecolonisingThe African Mind Lagos: Pero Press.

Chinweizu (1987b) The West and The Rest of Us Lagos: Pero Press.

Cohen, P. (ed.) (1995) For a Multicultural University. New Ethnicities Paper No.3 University of East London.

Fanon, F. (1965) Black Skin, White Masks New York: Grove Press.

Gilroy,P. (1993) The Black Atlantic London: Verso.

Jiwani, A., et al (1996) Report on Staff and Student Views on Equal Opportunities, Ethnicity, Culture, Religion, Race and Nationality University of East London.

Jiwani, A. and Gosling, D.(1997) "Curriculum Design for Multi-Ethnic Higher Education" in G. Gibbs (ed.) Curriculum Design for Improving Student Learning Oxford Brookes University.

Modood, T. (1994) Changing Ethnic Identities London: PSI

Nehusi, K. (2000). "From Medew Netjer to Ebonics" in C. Crawford (ed.) Ebonics and Language Education of African Ancestry Students New York and London: Sankofa World Press.

Taylor, C. (1994) Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton University Press.

Tyndell, G and Pearce, T. (2000) First Destination Returns of UEL Graduates University of East London.

Willett, C. (1998) Theorizing Multiculturism Oxford: Blackwell.

Note

A linguistic characteristic of Afrikans from the earliest known times has been the hard 'c' sound, here represented as 'k', rather than the soft 'c', written as 'c' and 'q' in Arab and European sources. See K. Nehusi (2000), 'From Medew Netjer to Ebonics' in C. Crawford (ed.) Ebonics and Language Education of African Ancestry Students New York and London: Sankofa World Publishers.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 24 February 2003