What happens when students speak up against racism in their universities? Not much, as case at Åbo Akademi University shows

Students at Åbo Akademi University, in Turku, reflect about the aftermath of their initiative against what they perceived as racist requirements in admissions. They also invite students in other universities to take action. By Emilia Plichta, Jan Louie Uy, Niki Panera and Vera Lindén. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.

As students, we are often asked to write papers and create projects that are addressed only to our lecturers and supervisors, so when we heard that in our course Race, Racism and Antiracism, we could choose to create an antiracism campaign as the final assignment, we were pretty excited.

First, we thought about making a social media campaign. However, the more we learned about systemic racism, the more we felt like our small campaign would not achieve any viable results. We needed to take into account our time for creating the campaign and resources that we had.

During one of the initial conversations, we discussed about how we could make an actual change. Since systemic racism is at the core of racism, we decided to address a policy that we considered to be racist. Emilia brought up that our lecturer mentioned how the admission language requirements at universities could be considered racist, and we all agreed that it would be great to address it.

We decided to write an open letter to the admissions office and heads of international master’s degree programs of Åbo Akademi University (ÅAU). In the letter, we explain why we think this policy should be revised. We knew that to be taken seriously, we needed to do our research thoroughly and be precise in formulating our arguments.

Each of us looked into different aspects of the issue: Niki examined the decolonial debate in academia, Louie looked at language proficiency requirements and examinations, Vera looked at the institutions that provide the required exams, and Emilia compared ÅAU’s language requirements with that of other universities in English-speaking countries. Once the letter was ready, we sent it out and waited for answers. You can read it here.

Initially, we received positive feedback from recipients of the letter and reassurance that the matter would be discussed further with decisive organs. However, in six months, we did not receive an official response. It showed us that there are no easy-to-follow procedures in place at the institution to respond to an issue brought up by “outsiders.” Even though we are students at ÅAU, we do not have the actual power to make any changes, so we used our right to express our concerns and hoped that it could be quickly addressed and solved.

The fact that we have been waiting for so long, is part of the problem of decolonising academia. There are no systemic ways to address problematic policies. Sticking to the status quo seems to be the easiest solution in this case. To be clear, we would like to highlight that this is not an issue unique to ÅAU, but an issue that concerns most academic institutions.

At first, when we received praises for bringing the issue of language requirement forward, we felt excited and hopeful that our action may lead to a policy change. The longer we waited, the more frustrated we felt. The reality of having to put a lot of time and effort into making a difference in policy hit us hard and made us worry that our letter may be shelved and forgotten. The responses we received, and the lack of an official statement, was typical of the non-racist approach – it was not overtly racist, but not antiracist either.

To shake the fundaments of an institution, one open letter may not be enough. That is why we wanted to share our experience with a broader audience and wrote this reflection on the process – experiencing it first-hand is tiring, but we believe in the cause and want to encourage others to speak up. We have been assured that the issue we brought up is discussed, but we would appreciate being included or updated on its progress so that it does not feel like our work was in vain.

The letter was published on the intranet of ÅAU so that all the other students, faculty members and administration could familiarise themselves with it.  We presented its main points during the seminar organised by the Social Exclusion students in May 2021, so people from outside our institution also learned about it. We had a warm reception, and people showed interest in sharing the letter we wrote at their institutions. Some were not aware of the problematic nature of language requirements in the admission process, and others, while aware of the issue, did not have strong arguments to bring it up in their institutions.

The issue we focused on in our open letter does not concern only ÅAU, but we decided to address only our home university with the limited time frame and resources. We hope that the open letter we wrote will inspire others and bring policy changes to decolonise academia. Now, we would like to invite everyone to start a similar discussion at their institutions.