Uni life, racism and classism: a student perspective

January 7, 2021

Collage of stills from UAHELL: Racism

Shakira Dyer reviews UAHELL, a documentary series by filmmaker Qays Moses Nsanja

Qays Moses Nsanja is a Media Communications graduate at the London College of Communication, a campus of the University of Arts London (UAL). He is also creator of his own films, PrQductions.

I watched Qays’ recent dramatic documentary series, UAHELL, tackling classism and racism at university. The films explore the idea that, “Despite the promises of inclusion and progression, only a few reap the full benefits of the university experience.”

In Episode 2: Race, Qays explores the racism “plaguing [his] university.” He feels that the education system has not provided him with enough support and that the institution does not take racism seriously.

Qays outside Fortismere School. Credit: PrQductions

Qays studied at Fortismere in Muswell Hill, a top-ranking secondary school in a largely white middle-class area, and he reported that he “never felt he fit in” as a young black student.

“When I was passionate about things, I was seen as angry and aggressive,” says Qays.

He thought the inequalities would be different when he entered the university world, but the unfair educational system continued.

Reflecting on the Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing racism during the pandemic, Qays highlighted that racism was becoming more pervasive: “It’s not just police brutality – this oppression is normalised everywhere. Even my ‘liberal’ university is part of the problem.”

Qays interviewed fellow students to find out about their experiences of racism. One Asian student said that he would try to talk to people of many different backgrounds, yet they wouldn’t go out of their way talk to him. He reported “always having to make the first move to get to know them.”

Qays: “[non-white students] are the empty chairs in UAHELL, constantly put on display but nonetheless sat on and ignored.” Credit: ProQductions

Stereotypes like being the ‘angry black girl’ meant students who complained could be mocked. A Facebook post from anonymous students implied that some believed calling out racism was “giving black people advantages” over white people or denying the struggles of working-class white people.

Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth, as tackling the underlying class and attitudinal issues surrounding racism would help everyone.

In the current ‘cancel culture’ age, Qays points out that people don’t mention or talk openly about racism because they are “scared of being cancelled.” As a result, discrimination in universities is often only reported anonymously.

According to Qays, around 300 UAL students had to complain anonymously about offensive comments online. Some students felt that the university’s diversity policies were ‘superficial’ and subtle discrimination, in hiring and tutors’ comments, continued.

In Episode 1: Class, Qays touches on issues of class. He states that his course in Communication welcomed students from working-class backgrounds, yet the majority of the university wasn’t like that.

UAHELL highlights the need to take students’ experiences seriously

Some noticed a divide in the wealth that students had, affecting their ability to afford university fees. International students, along with middle- and upper-class students, were more likely to be able to afford university fees of £9,000 per year.

The episode also highlights that many students felt conflicted about new UAL accommodation being built over Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which will have a detrimental impact on the local community, including the Caribbean and South American traders who will lose their jobs.

The shopping centre closed down in September 2020, with the planned regeneration only including 116 affordable houses, and evicting local traders.

With hard-hitting rap music, and interspersed images and statistics throughout (edited by Qays and fellow student, David Jimenez), UAHELL underlines the need to take students’ experiences seriously and look at the wider issues as to why BAME and working-class students are still disadvantaged.

Qays calls for the university to “be real, be genuine,” not superficial in its policies, allowing the voices of other students to be heard and questioning the racism that still exists there.

A second part of ‘UAHELL, Episode 2: Race’, and another film on self-expression will be coming soon.

Our thanks to Thrive LDN’s Right To Thrive grant scheme for making this project possible.

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