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Monday, 16 January 2017

SOAS, University of London: Academic Language and BME Students, A Productive Debate?



When I was a postgraduate at the London University Institute of Education (now part of UCL), one of the most influential lecturers was Professor Basil Bernstein, with his ideas of restricted and elaborated codes of speech, and the class-influenced communication gulf between some teachers and some schoolchildren, that he suggested was a significant educational issue that needed more research and attention.

The "Degrees of Racism" report (summary here) that has been produced by the SOAS Students' Union, takes this discussion further, from the perspective of some Black and Ethnic Minority students:

"Some BME students felt silenced also by the pressure to communicate using academic language that – for reasons of structural racism – was closer to the everyday speech of middle-class, white students than to their own. One BME student reported having their accent “corrected”. Another said they had peers who expected to be perceived as less intelligent on the basis of racist, classist stereotypes, and some felt their choice was between adopting the language of their white, middle-class peers or not speaking at all".

Degrees of racism - A qualitative investigation into ethnicity attainment gaps at SOAS
A report by SOAS Students' Union,.September 2016

To read the full report, download the document here. 


"Racial exclusion operated through the centring of white perspectives in the curriculum and in class discussions, the over-representation of white people among staff and students on some courses, biased assessment practices, and racism by staff and students. These conditions also appeared to produce or reinforce teachers' lower expectations of their BME students".

I have no idea whether the broader complaints about a "white curriculum" are justified, but the issue of the use of alienating/excluding, 'middle-class' "academic language" in the classroom, seminar or lecture hall is something that may be of concern to quite a few international students (in particular), as well as to those from BME families.



"SOAS is proud to be one of the most diverse higher education institutions in the country. With just over 50% BME students and 40% BME staff (compared to sector averages of 21% and 8% respectively) this is huge asset to the learning experience at SOAS. This diversity goes hand in hand with a strong academic environment - in last year's National Student Survey we came top for teaching in London with a 90% satisfaction rating...The report provides insight into the views of a range of SOAS students and has contributed to the ongoing discussions about how to make our curriculum more academically robust and relevant. While the recommendations and conclusions do not necessarily reflect the view of the whole SOAS community they have helped to spark productive debate. We value the contributions of all our staff and students to these conversations".

Let's hope that the debate proves to be productive. 










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