Rhodes isn’t falling at Oxford, but universities’ racist curriculums still could

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign isn’t just about a statue – as much as it suits Rhodes' defenders to act like it is. 

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Cecil Rhodes – or at least the statue of him perched above the entrace of Oriel College, Oxford – isn’t falling. The college announced today that despite the efforts of Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO), a student-led organisation callling its for removal, the 19th-century statue will stay.

In a statement, the college said that it made its decision based on an “enormous amount of input” from students and academics, but a leaked report meant for the college's governors tells quite a different story. The Telegraph reports that, “furious donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100m” if the statue was taken down. Governors were threatened with tales of alumni disinheriting the college and cancelling large donations.

The decision comes as a blow to RMFO, which called the move “outrageous, dishonest, and cynical” in a statement earlier today. But it's worth remembering that, despite the scorn poured on the campaign for its apparent obsession with a statue, RMFO's aims are actually far broader – and today's decision isn't its finale. Adam Elliott-Cooper, a PhD student in geography at Oxford and a supporter of the campaign, tells me that RMFO sees itself as a continuation of the campaign in South Africa – which in turn “is a continuation of the anti-apartheid struggle” in South Africa.

The group's stated aims are to “decolonise the space, the curriculum, and the institutional memory at, and to fight intersectional oppression within, Oxford”. Within this remit, the statue is an important symbol, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. It's therefore telling that the press in particular, and even Oxford's Vice Chancellor, have focused so obsessively on the statue as the students' main target: it's easy to call students pathetic for their objection to a piece of stone, but far harder to dismiss calls for a diverse curriculum that rigorously interrogates our colonial history; or accusations of institutional racism. 

The anger shown by those defending the statue is telling – there's little of the "I'm not a racist, but...” handwringing one might expect. Chris Patten, the Vice Chancellor, warned that the backlash against Rhodes was a result of “contemporary views” (like the fact all races are equal, perhaps), and said that students unable to deal with historical racism should study somewhere else. As the journalist Dan Hodges tweeted earlier today, “many of the people defending the statue are clearly depfending it because they think Rhodes was right”. 

Rhodes Must Fall campaigners with Oriel College representatives. Image: Rhodes Must Fall Oxford. 

The fact the statue still stands doesn't mean that other aspects of the campaign couldn't succeed. A push for more diversity on the curriculum could both win more supporters and, arguably, make more of a difference to students' time at the institution. It also expands the debate beyond Oxford's towers and the Oxford-educated journalists (guilty) who write about them, boring everyone else along the way – most universities in the UK could benefit from more diverse, forward-looking curricula. It's a debate we should be having as a nation. 

But as various RMFO supporters pointed out to me, if Oxford donors are willing to cancel donations based on a statue's proposed removal, what might they and the rest of the establishment do in response to real institutional change? As Elliott-Cooper tells me, “ We learned today that the college's decisions aren't based on moral integrity or intellectual progress, they're about money.”

Yara Rodrigues Fowler, an alumna now studying for a Master's in Comparative Literature at UCL, tells me that the decision and its apparent motivation demonstrates “ institutionalised racism, plain and simple”:

“I hope this will be a turning point for those that did not support the removal of the statue because, clearly, Oxford is not a bastion for free speech; quite the opposite, its silence can be bought. Indeed one wonders whether there is anything Oriel wouldn’t do for a large enough donation, since it is willing to overlook genocide. Unless we stand up to big donors and their sinister interest in protecting Rhodes, we cannot expect anything more than tokenistic change in curricula, the number of black professors or the experience of students of colour at Oxford.”

Oxford carried out a race equality summit in 2014 and claims it is already making “concrete changes” to its curriculum in response. Other, similar efforts are taking place at educational institutions around the country. But it remains unclear whether elite institutions like Oxford can really change while they still place their high-prestige donors, and resultant institutional wealth and power, above their students.

On the RMFO Facebook group, one member wonders whether the only way forward is to "refuse to study at the university, give back scholarships and boycott the institution". (RMFO will announce its future plans at a press conference on Monday.)

Whatever your views on the statue, the fact remains that with or without it Oxford is an inescapably imperialist institution, which gains its prestige and funding from a history of exploitation and oppressive power structures. Current students at Oxford may be oppressed by these structures, but will also gain from Oxford's place within them. Rhodes acts as an apt symbol: he blemishes the university's history, while handing out piles of cash to current students from beyond the grave. Similarly, the university has a history of elitism, yet also paints a little of that varnish onto the students who pass through its gates, then find their CVs floating to the top of every pile. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.