From 19th to 23rd October, UEA celebrated Asexual (Ace) Awareness week. This was the first time the week has been publicised on campus, with events taking place each day to heighten people’s awareness of asexuality as well as engagement with UEA’s Media Collective and UEA Publishers. To cut a long story short, it was kind of a big deal. At Thursday’s union council meeting, LGBT+ caucus’ ace rep, Eliott Simpson, brought forward a motion to make asexual awarness week an official annual event, as well as expanding the campaign to include those who identify as aromantic. The motion was passed and this reflected the success of the week as a whole, as well as UEA’s long-held attitude of inclusion and support for minorities. Simpson commented that the campaign “has been a tremendous success for spreading better understanding of one of the university’s more overlooked communities, and for allowing students that may be uncertain of their own identity to now feel more comfortable in the knowledge that numerous alternative spectrums do exist”.
This is just one small example of the lengths the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS) goes to in celebrating diversity. All kinds of ethnicities, sexualities and genders are welcomed and our union encourages inclusion and makes efforts to ensure every student feels welcome on campus, no matter who they are or where they’re from. It’s a no-brainer, really.
However, like anything involving human beings, UEA and UUEAS don’t always get everything spot on. It’s often said that the rights of certain students are pushed forward at the expense of others, and issues of equality remain a problem for many students. There is also unfortunately an attitude developing towards UEA as a militant left-wing university which places political correctness and pedantry before many other important issues.
Who is to say where the balance is? It must be admitted that, despite the apparent over-reaction of union officers at times, intentions are always based around equality and inclusion. Sombrero-gate was for many students an embarrassment for UEA, with some stating it as an overreaction and in an article from BBC Mundo (the BBC’s Spanish-language division) online, the chairman of the British Mexican society stated that he felt the Mexican community themselves would not have objected to Mexican cuisine being marketed in this way. It’s this kind of perceived overreaction which sparks debates – but they are certainly debates worth having. As ethnic minorities officer Hussam Hussein has stated -and, admittedly, has probably been over-quoted by now: “I’m not sure if we got #sombrerogate right – but I’m glad we’re having the debate… I’m proud that this is a university where our student leaders are prepared to stand up and challenge and confront discrimination on campus and in wider society”.
And he’s right. UEA may not always please everyone, and may be struggling against a reputation of a haven for hemp-munching hippy-liberal students and nobody else, but every incident or argument like this comes from a thought pattern and culture within our university which asks: “Is this okay? Am I making everyone feel comfortable? Are we treating everyone equally regardless of background or characteristic?” One could certainly argue that bringing up debates and questions is often more important than getting things right all the time: this, after all, is the purpose of higher education.
The current academic year has already seen lots being done for students on large and small scales to promote effective representation, support and inclusion. The introduction of gender-neutral toilets on campus has been largely a success – however one could point out that only half the cubicles in the Hive contain sanitary bins. Furthermore, some students have stated they feel less safe in a gender-neutral environment, on club nights for example – but this has been made less of an issue by leaving the option of gender-specific toilets in the Blue Bar. Even debates about the toilets being less well-kept than previously have been quashed, with Westley Barnes describing them as “the cleanest I’ve seen in a university”. All in all, the introduction appears to have passed without incident and has fulfilled its aim in allowing trans and non-binary students at UEA to “pee in peace”.
Black history month was celebrated this October, and involved various stalls in the Hive, open mic nights, film nights, readings and panel debates. It also encompassed the “liberating our curriculum” campaign. All students were invited to participate which meant that everyone could learn about black history, culture and heritage. Events were well attended and other aims of disseminating information on positive black contributions to society, heightening confidence and awareness of black people to their cultural heritage and supporting the struggles of black people. These aims were stated online by the union, and it was easy to see them carried out in a fun, varied and engaging way. Organisers of the month’s events are to be congratulated for their energy and commitment. For second-year student Naomi Rhodes, more progress is needed: “I think black history month has been great this year… but sometimes I worry we’re not actually getting through to people. I realy want people to understand that the black liberation is something that is still in process now, but a lot of people I’ve been speaking to seem to think it’s not that big a deal when it is… I just find that I’m aware that I’m a minority in most places at UEA especially in my course and maybe they should draw some attention to that”.
On a personal level, each student is offered continual support from the Dean of Students (DOS) and the Advice Centre, who certainly don’t discriminate. Feedback for these is overwhelmingly positive. According to one student: “UEA offers a huge amount of support for all students in terms of the Advice Centre and DOS, for example. I would go so far as to say that if any more help were offered, it would become intrusive”. On top of this, each student has a range of support to avail of personally: Norwich Nightline, academic advisors and each school’s student staff liaison committee (SSLC) are determined to offer help to all who ask for it. SSLCs in particular are pushing this year to make students’ voices heard at all board meetings and aim to include undergrads, postgrads and mature students.
Despite all this positive feedback, there is still a sense on campus that some groups get ignored. It’s unfair to paint a picture of straight, white men having no representation, but at the same time many students believe that in promoting women’s issues, men’s get left behind. In promoting issues of diversity for the few, it’s thought that we may end up ignoring the cultures of the many.
Over the summer a society was proposed to promote men’s issues such as mental health and access to higher education, but nothing came to fruition and the plans were viewed widely as a combative reaction to UEA’s Feminist Society. Although this does not appear to have been the initial aim, fears that the society would have attracted those who disagree with feminist ideals were probably not unfounded. However, with Ucas chief executive, Mary Curnock Cook ,stating after a decline in the percentage of UK males availing of higher education that: “Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group in terms of going to university and this underperformance needs urgent focus across the education sector”. Perhaps males within the university environment are becoming a group whose needs should be addressed.
The bottom line for all students at UEA, however, is that the opportunity to have your voice heard is incredibly present on campus. Admittedly, we all have a way to go in terms of acceptance, equality and diversity, but the fact remains we are a progressive establishment.
Those who feel unrepresented or left out – most recently trans, ace and aro students – have come forward and been helped with campaigns to get their voices heard and improve the lives of minorities. Examples like ace and aro awareness week as well as the gender neutral toilets have illustrated how much support there is here at UEA for anyone, whether part of minority or majority groups, who wants to promote change. All it takes is someone brave enough to represent a community, like our reps and officers… It’s now up to us to make that confidence easier to come by.