A new society, the BAME (Black,Asian and Minority Ethnic) Students Network, is being launched by St Andrews students who say they are seeking to “engage with black and minority ethnic students and bring them into a community which cares for them.”
The society is part of a wider response on the part of many students to longstanding concerns about the ethnic makeup of the University. The Saint sat down with founders and co-presidents Manhattan Murphy-Brown and Alice Olomola.
Early last summer, The Saint reported on a story which suggested a sharp disparity in the ratio of BAME students and staff at St Andrews. The statistics were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information request made by a visiting PhD student from Harvard University, Laura Lewis, and were shared by her on the official University of St Andrews Instagram page.
Shortly afterwards, a petition asking the University to adopt a name-blind admissions policy began circulating online. Mr Murphy-Brown, a third-year modern history and IR student, said, “Currently, the system is that people apply, their name is the first thing that comes up, and even if it’s not explicit, there is a bias against names which seem foreign or unique. This has been shown in many studies.
“Having name-blind applications would be beneficial to black students.”
In order to make sharing the petition easier, a Facebook group chat called the BAME Students Network was created on 8 July 2019 to share the petition amongst BAME students and alumni at St Andrews. (The author of this piece is a member of the chat.)
The petition did very well, Ms Olomola, a fourth-year philosophy student, said, and soon members in the group chat were sharing items as wide-ranging as stories of the personal struggles of being BAME in St Andrews, advice for incoming freshers, invitations to dances, and notices about graduate opportunities.
Mr Murphy-Brown noted how engaged the chat had made the BAME community in St Andrews and began mulling the idea of doing something more with it.
“Over the summer,I personally spent a lot of time looking at other ACSs [Afro-Caribbean societies] in different [universities], BAME groups at other unis, and in workplaces in general,” Mr Murphy-Brown said.
He began to gather together this information over the summer, but he and other members of the BAME Student Network group chat were galvanised into action on the heels of a much-publicised launch of the Stormzy scholarship at Cambridge.
The popular grime artist pledged to pay the tuition of two students at the Oxbridge university, with the BBC reporting that the publicity around the fund saw an increase both in black applicants and admitted students.The artist himself said much of the credit should go to the Cambridge ACS which first reached out to him.
Mr Murphy-Brown noted that the proportion of black students at St Andrews is currently far lower than at Cambridge, adding, “If we want to be able to campaign to get this kind of engagement [as was seen at Cambridge], get these kinds of scholarships, approach businesses, and approach schools, we need something more concrete than a Facebook group chat.” Ms Olomola and others agreed, and in October of this year, preparation for a fully-fledged society began in earnest.
Ms Olomola had previously started an informal mentorship programme for black St Andrews students and was highly encouraged by the positive response. “It just made more sense” to turn the numerous informal group chats, networks and mentorship programmes into a formal society, she said.
She and Mr Murphy-Brown filed the necessary paperwork with the Students’ Association earlier this year and praised the level of support they received from students and University officials.
But both students also felt that St Andrews could do more as a community to make BAME students feel welcome. Mr Murphy-Brown said, “In my personal opinion, it’s very difficult to break into a uni which is so based on tradition.
“St Andrews is obviously one ofthe oldest universities, and Scotland doesn’t have a large BAME population in general; [additionally,] links to things like the royal family and old money… has basically stopped St Andrews being a target [for BAME applicants].“We’ve seen the amazing work of black, Asian, and minority ethnic students within St Andrews [which demonstrates that] we’re not shack-led by tradition. People are extremely accepting [at this university], but it’s really about getting that message out and fostering a community.”
Reaching out to secondary schools here in the UK will, therefore, be a top priority for the new society. Mr Murphy-Brown added, “While St Andrews has such a big advertisement to other countries, especially the Americas, it’s not necessarily the case within this country [when it comes to] specifically targeting BAME students.”
Ms Olomola similarly felt that the University may be prioritising its establishment image over efforts to make inroads into traditionally marginalised communities, likewise noting the number of outreach and mentorship programmes the University offers across the world, compared to a relative lack of them amongst BAME communities here in Britain.
She said, “St Andrews is a place with so much opportunity, and I feel like people miss out because the Uni doesn’t cater to people like us.
“Outreach to black students is very important because we are just as valuable as any other students. We have so much to give.” Black students benefit St Andrews as much as the other way round, she said.
Mr Murphy-Brown and Ms Olomola both argued that the existence of a solid BAME community would help soothe the concerns of potential applicants nervous about coming to a university which, they believe, has a reputation of being the preserve of students who come from wealthier and less ethnically diverse segments of the population.
But outreach to potential applicants is not the only aim of the BAME Student Network, they said. A more formal continuation of Ms Olomola’s mentorship programme, career festivals, CV advice sessions and conferences, are all being planned as part of the new society’s activities. Ms Olomola said, “Hopefully, we could even have an alumni network helping current students with their careers.”
Mr Murphy-Brown described a three-pronged approach, the first of which involves “engaging with schools, specifically to speak to students and put St Andrews as an option, especially as we rise in the league tables.
“The second one is to address BAME issues within St Andrews, so things like reports of racial abuse, multicultural awareness week, and working with the University racial diversity officer in order to make St Andrews a place in which black students feel like they have a community.
“And finally, the future, which is essentially looking into professional careers, jobs, employment, and making sure that the students who come out of St Andrews are marketable in the competitive job market in which BAME students are disproportionately targeted against, and getting students put into that environment so that they can give back to the community in the future.”
As part of the Students’ Association’s affiliation process, Mr Murphy-Brown and Ms Olomola had to seek confirmation that their new society’s activities with not overlap with the remit of the University’s Afro-Caribbean Society.
Mr Murphy-Brown said, “We do, of course, have the ACS here. However, the ACS’s official statement was to advance Afro-Caribbean culture, whereas ours will be all black, Asian, and minority ethnic students in St Andrews for more of a professional network than a cultural one.”
Ms Olomola also mentioned the mentorship programme and alumni network that ASC runs, noting that with the BAME society in existence, “everyone and anyone who is BAME identifying across the University can join to support one another.”
The BAME Student Network has been given right to proceed by the University and is currently in the process of completing paperwork and filling committee positions. The co-presidents have also already begun preparing for the society’s launch early next year.
Mr Murphy-Brown said, “We are approaching schools, approaching businesses, [and] conversing amongst ourselves. We also hope to launch events for networking, not only with students within St Andrews but with these groups and to branch out to different communities here in the UK and also abroad in order to engage with BAME students who are potentially thinking about St Andrews but who aren’t a hundred-percent sure.”
When asked how they would respond to critics of policies such as affirmative action and positive discrimination, Ms Olomola and Mr Murpy-Brown sympathised with sincerely-felt concerns but stressed that the aim of the society will be to provide a supportive community for traditionally disadvantaged students.
Ms Olomola said, “As a black woman at St Andrews, I’ve actually struggled a lot with getting internships because I didn’t feel it was accessible to me as other students.”
Mr Murphy-Brown added, “Obviously this isn’t an institution which excludes BAME students, but it also isn’t one which necessarily fosters community [amongst them].
“I say to critics that we are essentially just tackling anxieties, [comforting] people who are worried about feeling included, about the future, and view their race as a barrier. If that’s not the case for certain people, Is ay congratulations. But, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t feel included because of their race.”
Both expressed their appreciation for the University and its traditions but argued that more can be done to forge a more “modern” and welcoming atmosphere for black and minority ethnic students, and stressed the benefits of a diverse university population.
The founders also brought up examples of similar initiatives at other prestigious universities in the UK, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, and highlighted the overwhelmingly positive results.
They also felt that, as at Cambridge, the onus was at least partially on the student body to tackle these issues. Ms Olomola said, “I think it’s more important now than ever that students lead in instances where we see problems at university. As students,we have a greater understanding [of the issues].”Mr Murphy-Brown added, “It’s not as if there is a lack of very talented, very intelligent BAME students— not only in this country but in the world — who would like to go into higher education, but we are going to have to facilitate that.”