University prospectuses misrepresent BME students.

pexels-photo-267586By Dom Jackson-Cole

Introduction

Prospectuses have been identified as important marketing tools for universities trying to attract potential postgraduate students (Mowjee, 2013). However, researchers in the UK and the US found that prospectuses were misleading their readers in terms of their use of data (Bradley, 2013) or images to represent diversity (Jaschik, 2008; Osei-Kofi, Torres, & Lui, 2013; Vasagar, 2010). I investigated this further by conducting a small scale textual and visual analysis of prospectuses of five research intensive universities for 2016/17 academic year. Prospectuses were read and eye-scanned and then coded with attention given to relations of power and privilege and how these were reproduced by discourses of historical, sociological and political contexts, using Critical Race Theory as the main theoretical framework (Gillborn, 2012; Rollock & Gillborn, 2011). From this the following themes were identified:

Lack of explicit references to ‘race’ and diversity

In none of the five prospectuses the words “race”, “ethnicity or “ethnic minority” were used outside of the course descriptions, such as sociology or history. The words ‘diversity” and “equality” also did not feature in the context of ‘race’ and ethnicity but in course/ department descriptions, for example “diversity of topics”. Only one university described the city where it was located as “vibrant and diverse”. This signal the attempted colour-blind/ post-racial character of the publications, in which issues of ‘race’ simply don’t feature explicitly and are wrongly (intentionally or unintentionally) assumed to be non-existent.

Global transfer of whiteness through research

A lot of prominence in the publications was given to research excellence of universities. However, the research case studies presented either disregarded ‘race’ related investigations, deeming them as not worthy of mentioning, or promoted the discourse of superior knowledge being produced by White people and transferred onto global South. In one prospectus highlighting the global reach of the institution’s research such words as “support development of their school system”, “Improve nutrition”, “improve the quality of life”, “help remote forest communities” were used when talking about cooperation with non-Western countries. At the same time, research collaborations with Western Countries such as the USA, Australia and European states talked about “sharing knowledge” or “partnership” and referred to highly advanced STEM research. Thus, the Western countries were portrayed as equal partners in technologically advanced research, while the countries from the global South were being supposedly helped by the knowledge transfers from White to non-White nations.

Extracurricular activities – diversity at the periphery

All the prospectuses mentioned extracurricular activities as an attractive offer supplementing the core activities. Imagery of ethnic diversity was popular in these sections among descriptions of cultural festivals, nightlife, and sports. This could suggest that diversity is treated as a fun, extra-curricular feature rather than being at the core of the institutions of teaching and learning.

Visual (mis)representation

The prospectuses over-represented BME students’ presence compared to their actual student demographics. While, this may be seen positively as a way to build an inclusive and encouraging image of the institution in order to draw in potential BME students, it is not genuine and may backfire when students choose the institution and the reality does not meet their expectations – potentially impacting their sense of belonging and satisfaction. However, images of BME staff were under-represented. It can suggest that BME staff are not seen as worthy of mentioning.

BME as relationally inferior

In terms of the distribution of the photographs of BME students these were mostly featured in the sections dedicated to international students, sports and support. This can be seen as very stereotypical, and can send a message that people of colour at the universities are only or mostly international students. Along with a higher concertation of BME images in the sections to do with student support (e.g. childcare, studying skills, mental health support) this plays into the overall implicit discourses of BME students seen as somehow lesser than White students and needing help.

On three out of four occasions images with BME and White people in one-on-one situations suggested it was the White person explaining something to the BME individual, and only one image had a person of colour seemingly explaining something to a White person. This may convey a message that BME people at universities are the receivers of knowledge, rather than the ones producing it. In other situations, BME people were simply absent. Thus, BME people in the prospectuses were omitted or mostly seen as lesser.

Conclusions

The above analysis demonstrates how whiteness was the dominant ideology informing representations of BME staff and students in all of the five university prospectuses investigated. By over-representing BME students in photographs, while at the same time paying no attention to ethnic diversity in the written texts, the prospectuses were shown to be disingenuous and misleading in their portrayal of campus realities, at most engaging in a superficial way with issues of ‘race’. The concentration of images of BME people in sections dedicated to international students, student support and extra-curricular activities, as well as relational positioning of BME people as knowledge consumers rather than producers contributed to the racist traditions of stereotypical and infantilising discourses of BME people.

References

Gillborn, D. (2012). Education and institutional racism. London: Institute of Education Press.

Jaschik, S. (2008, July 2). Viewbook Divesity vs. Real Diversity. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/07/02/viewbooks

Mowjee, B. (2013). Are postgraduate students ‘rational choosers’? An investigation of motivation for graduate study amongst international students in England. Research in Comparative and International Education, 8(2), 193–213.

Osei-Kofi, N., Torres, L. E., & Lui, J. (2013). Practices of whiteness: racialization in college admissions viewbooks. Race Ethnicity and Education, 16(3), 386–405. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2011.645572

Rollock, N., & Gillborn, D. (2011). Critical Race Theory (CRT). British Educational Research Association. Retrieved from https://www.bera.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Critical-Race-Theory-CRT-.pdf

Vasagar, J. (2010, December 6). Twenty-one Oxbridge colleges took no black students last year. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/dec/06/oxford-colleges-no-black-students

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