Contextual; Melting Pot In Meltdown

How can Britain maintain racial harmony at its Universities?  

Words by TREVYN RAYNER-CANHAM

With Brexit on the horizon, researchers have predicted a fall in EU student numbers in the UK by two-thirds.  This will inadvertently put a financial strain on universities and ultimately Britain’s economy in the foreseeable future, considering that “The UK earned £5.1 billion from EU students in 2015/16” (MastersDegree.net,n.d.).  This reduction in income from foreign students is not helped by the purported rise in racism as a result of Brexit fever.  To encourage the continued influx of foreign students that we currently enjoy, Britain should be fostering cultural cohesion.  So how can we best do this?

When Su Jen was eight, she and her parents migrated from the bustling city state of Singapore to the retiring British seaside town of Folkestone.  She arrived with a strong Asian accent and painfully shy demeanour, anxious to fit in with her new peers in primary school.  Fortunately (or “unfortunately” if you value your gastronomic experience above making friends), Su Jen’s parents signed her up for school dinners.   This became the foundation of her friendship with Alex and Chloe, who were the only two other girls confined to the school dinners table.  Together they would stare wistfully at their classmates and their packed lunches, and collectively gag over the congealed rice pudding.

Su Jen was lucky to have forged this immediate bond with her British classmates.  But for other foreign students it may not be this simple.  In a 2016 report by the University of Hull on the experiences of international students, it was found that they “can have difficulty engaging in multicultural friendships and making friends with host-nationals” (Beech, 2016), even if they arrive with the intention of “engaging with the host-national student community” (Beech, 2016).  When students from Brunel University were asked about what challenges they faced when trying to befriend individuals from other ethnic backgrounds, their responses included “cultural differences and beliefs”, “language barriers” and “not understanding cultural references and jokes”.  This may well be why international students often feel the need to form “cultural cliques” (Beech, 2016) in order to facilitate “integration and group cohesion” (Raghuram, 2013).

We often cringe at the word “clique”, but if we consider the core reasons for doing so: to be around others of like mind and who share the same beliefs and understandings as us, perhaps we should stop putting such a negative label on a natural tendency.  Research into animal behaviour shows that forming cliques is not exclusive to humans; bottle nose dolphins that “wear sea sponges on their beaks as hunting tools prefer to hang out with other dolphins that do the same” (latimes, 2012).  The two examples of social interaction that have been mentioned thus far would suggest that sharing similar circumstances and features with others is an effective “bonding agent”. 

However, finding common ground with those from other ethnic backgrounds may take a bit of work, especially in the wake of current Brexit negotiations.  Britain appears to be suffering from a nation-wide cultural identity crisis and the debate on immigration is reaching a boiling point. In addition to this, the UN special rapporteur on racism Tendayi Achiume has observed a “Brexit-related growth in ‘explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance’” (Dearden, 2018).  

In a bid to promote multicultural harmony, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared that “we derive so much of our strength from our diversity”(Aol.co.uk, 2017) in her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  However there is growing evidence that focusing on ethnic diversity actually downgrades social cohesion in communities.  A 2018 study on British communities found that “respondents in more diverse communities report lower neighbour-trust” because “ethnic diversity could (at least for certain individuals/communities) generate perceived-threat” (Laurence, Schmid and Hewstone, 2018).


Graph showing a decrease in neighbourhood trust with the rise of ethnic diversity in that neighbourhood. (Laurence, Schmid and Hewstone, 2018)  

We can therefore see that celebrating ethnic differences may backfire on our efforts to achieve multicultural union, whereas overlooking the differences and finding common features and interests instead could be a more effective approach. 

Lucy, who came to study in London at Brunel University from Germany, found that the best way to make friends in the UK was to join societies, “especially sports and game (like board game) clubs, because people are more likely to bond since they are doing something fun together”.  

Darren, a Malaysian student who also studies at Brunel University, said that food brings him and his British friends together because “eating is a universal language”. 

Indeed, in a survey conducted on a 102 Brunel University students to find out what activities they participated in to bond with friends from different ethnic backgrounds, bonding over food and sport were mentioned by the highest percentage of respondents at 25% each.


Chart showing that eating/cooking and sports are the top chosen activities that Brunel University students participate in to bond with friends from other ethnic backgrounds.

As a means to discourage the formation of “cultural cliques” and thereby bring about cultural cohesion in British Universities, perhaps we should find methods of encouraging the identification of common ground between ethnically diverse groups, to the extent that cultural differences become irrelevant because they are overshadowed by shared interests such as food and sports. This, more than any other, could be an effective approach to achieving cultural cohesion within student communities in Britain against the unstable social climate that Brexit has created. 


REFERENCES

Aol.co.uk. (2017). May: “We derive so much of our strength from our diversity” | AOL.com. [online] Available at: https://www.aol.co.uk/video/view/may-we-derive-so-much-of-our-strength-from-our-diversity-/58809d63c4d21f0a53898cd4/?guccounter=1 [Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].

Beech, S. (2016). The Multicultural Experience? ‘Cultural Cliques’ and the International Student Community. [online] London: Routledge. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/21989812/The_Multicultural_Experience_Cultural_Cliques_and_the_International_Student_Community [Accessed 26 Oct. 2018].

Dearden, L. (2018). Brexit has made racism more acceptable, UN warns. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/brexit-racism-religious-intolerance-united-nations-special-rapporteur-a8348021.html [Accessed 26 Oct. 2018].

latimes. (2012). Dolphins share trait with junior high girls: social cliques. [online] Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/01/science/la-sci-sn-like-humans-dolphins-hang-out-in-cliques-20120731 [Accessed 27 Oct. 2018].

Laurence, J., Schmid, K. and Hewstone, M. (2018). Ethnic diversity, ethnic threat, and social cohesion: (re)-evaluating the role of perceived out-group threat and prejudice in the relationship between community ethnic diversity and intra-community cohesion. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1369183X.2018.1490638# [Accessed 28 Oct. 2018].

MastersDegree.net. (n.d.). Infographic: The UK earned £5.1 billion from EU students in 2015/16. [online] Available at: https://www.mastersdegree.net/infographic-uk-earned-5-1-billion-eu-students-2015-16/ [Accessed 2 Nov. 2018].

Raghuram, P. (2013). Theorising the spaces of student migration. Population, Space and Place, 19(2), 138-154