Anti-racist education as an alternative to ‘diversity and inclusion’ at the University of Cambridge

By Chris Jeppesen, Sharon Walker, and Laura Carter //

This blog is reposted from the ‘Cambridge Centre for Teaching & Learning’ . It reports on a November 2019 workshop run by the SESC team and a colleague from the Faculty of Education, Sharon Walker, which drew upon research and resources from our project to address current policy issues in UK higher education

How might an anti-racist agenda look different to the University of Cambridge’s current emphasis on diversity and inclusion? This question stood at the heart of a recent workshop for University teachers and policymakers in Cambridge, which was held at Murray Edwards College at the beginning of November and generously supported by the inaugural University Diversity Fund. Organised by three postgraduate and early career researchers based in the Faculties of Education and History, Anti-racist education: history, theory, practice explored the relationship between the history of anti-racist activism in British secondary schools and the emergence of similar initiatives in contemporary higher education. It was organised in response to recent calls that universities need to do more to address entrenched inequalities and discriminatory practices around race and ethnicity by focussing less on diversity and more on anti-racist pedagogies. Attended by thirty participants from across the University, and representing all career stages, the workshop considered how all of us have a responsibility to create teaching, learning, and research environments that support all students and colleagues.

Breakout groups discussing primary source material on anti-racist education

The workshop began with an interactive session using primary sources led by Laura Carter and Chris Jeppesen (Faculty of History), which introduced participants to the history of anti-racist activism in London secondary schools during the 1970s and 80s. This session drew on research from the project that Laura and Chris currently work on, ‘Secondary education and social change in the UK since 1945’. Participants studied a range of sources produced by campaigners, pupils, and also critics of anti-racist pedagogy to see how debates unfolded in these decades.

The anti-racist movement grew rapidly in the 1970s as the British school system became more diverse and was strongly linked to the anti-sexist framework emerging from feminist education and sociology. While central and local government responses to the rising number of ‘immigrant pupils’ (the official categorisation for all pupils of colour until the mid-1970s) focussed first on ‘assimilation’ and then integration through ‘multi-cultural education’, anti-racist campaigners criticised the inadequacy of these approaches to address the deep structural inequalities disproportionately affecting working-class pupils of colour. They argued that a ‘multicultural’ approach – which positioned racism as the product of individual intolerance but that could be educated away – only exacerbated the problems it claimed to address. The ‘multicultural’ project in British schools failed to deal with institutional racism, lacked any awareness of the structural relationship between interlocking forms of racial, gendered, and classed discrimination, and offered no response to rising levels of racialized violence that followed the growth of National Front activity around schools. In its place, activists demanded a more assertive rejection of, and challenge to, racism in all its forms: to be anti-racist became a statement of active opposition as opposed to passive acquiescence.

Historian Elly Robson (Jesus College), comments on a poster produced by the Hackney Black Teachers’ Group in 1984

In the second session, Sharon Walker (Faculty of Education) explored the theoretical concepts that underpinned anti-racist activism in the 1980s and which remain central in debates surrounding Higher Education today. Drawing on the rich insights offered by scholars working in the fields of Critical Race Theory, educational sociology, and post-colonial studies, Sharon discussed how a renewed focus on the concepts of encounter, re-framing, and transformation can provide fresh possibilities for the University to reconceptualise its engagement with decolonizing debates moving forward. This requires the University to draw on a wealth of available knowledge to make decolonization a central concern rather than one which takes places on the periphery of University activities and via social media.

During the group discussions in both sessions, participants drew attention to the salient links between the issues raised by earlier anti-racist movements in the UK and current actions on decolonizing the academy: the need to broaden the Eurocentric focus of curricula; to provide greater opportunities to teachers of colour to enter the profession and progress to positions of seniority; and the necessity for a vigorous and coordinated challenge to all forms of racism, everyday and structural. But they also observed the need to guard against the risks that led to the fracturing of the anti-racist movement at the end of the 1980s. On the one hand, these came from a backlash on the political right and a reduction in the funding streams that had supported anti-racist initiatives. Importantly, however, this also reflected frustration among communities of colour that anti-racist initiatives had been co-opted to benefit institutional reputations at the expense of meaningful action on racial discrimination and the overturning of structural inequalities. An anti-racist agenda at the University of Cambridge must put action on structural change ahead of any perceived ‘PR’ benefits, internal or external to the University.  

These themes were developed in the afternoon sessions, which shifted focus onto how current teachers and policymakers might incorporate a more explicitly anti-racist approach into their everyday work. Dr Meleisa Ono-George (University of Warwick) gave a thought-provoking and energizing keynote address, which asked participants to think about not only what we teach, but how we teach. She outlined both the challenges and rewards of embedding an anti-racist philosophy at the heart of institutional ethos and how this is being done at the University of Warwick. Her insights highlight the need for coherence within institutions but also the need for collaboration between institutions in order to learn from each other.

Dr Meleisa Ono-George (University of Warwick) delivering her keynote entitled ‘Active Anti-Racism, Higher Education, and Transformational Change’

The day concluded with a plenary discussion in which participants spoke about their experience teaching in Cambridge and the challenges faced. Many felt that a more proactive and coordinated approach is required, which cuts across disciplinary boundaries and the constituent parts of the university, to build robust support for anti-racist and decolonizing initiatives. It was observed that the historical examples discussed earlier in the day served to warn of the dangers of complacency in the rapidly changing educational landscape, and elicited some exasperation regarding a sense of history repeating itself in the face of a lack of dialogue on these issues between British secondary and higher education over the past forty years. Shifting institutional priorities, changes in funding and admission structures, and lack of representativeness at a postgraduate level could all quickly undermine any sense of progress by further entrenching existing inequalities. Guarding against this requires a concerted and proactive effort at all levels of the University.

The organisers would like to thank again all participants and speakers for making this such an engaging and thought-provoking day and the University Diversity Fund for its support. What quickly became clear during the course of the workshop is that this is a conversation already well-advanced in various parts of the University, whilst other parts of the institution have kept themselves firmly closed off from it. Numerous events over the coming weeks showcase how much appetite there is amongst students and staff for a serious reappraisal of how the University engages with anti-racist approaches to teaching, learning, and organisation. We look forward to being part of this going forward.

All photo credits to Kalifa Damani (

To read more about Dr Meleisa Ono-George’s perspectives from the University of Warwick, see her article ‘Beyond diversity: anti-racist pedagogy in British History departments’, Women’s History Review, (2019), available here

To read more about Professor Fazal Rivzi’s reflections on decolonisation, see Rivzi, F. (forthcoming) Decolonisation (lecture given at the University of Pretoria and Stellenboach University, South Africa).

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Roy Whittle

    I have just come across this report and it has relevance to the work I am currently engaged in. First, some brief background. I matriculated in 1967 and entered Clare College from a state school and graduated in History in 1970. I spent a career teaching History in state schools and for the last 20 years of my career was Principal of Bolton Sixth Form College, a multi-racial institution. I was awarded an OBE in 2004 for my work of multi-racialism and multi-culturalism. Additionally, I have been involved in A Level examining for 40 years with JMB/AQA and have been Chair of Examiners in History at AQA for over 25 years. It is this latter capacity that I am commenting. We are, at AQA, keen to diversify the A Level History courses to include awareness of the developments linked to our multi-racial society. We plan to introduce a 20 century course in the Making of Multi-racial Britain for which I have drafted a course book. We are keen, also, to see how such themes might be incorporated into earlier periods, but are finding this challenging. For this reason, I would be interested in continuing to follow your work.

    1. Jeremy Clarke

      Good to see you are still providing inspiring leadership around social justice and social change, Mr. Whittle. Fond memories of your time at Hyde Grammar, when I was fortunate to be one of your students. Interested in your current work – above – and would love to hear from you. Jeremy Clarke, Hyde Grammar 1972-1980.

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