Every university faces different problems when trying to support marginalised students – especially in a global context, but even within different regions of the UK. It takes insightful and inspired educators to bring together learning from around the world about how to make the student experience the best it can be for everyone.
As an EDI professional who has worked at institutions in both the Caribbean and the UK, Melanie-Marie Haywood – Director of Education Development at Birmingham City University – is constantly identifying new ways for universities to meet the needs of marginalised students.
GoodCourse EDI lead Kitty Hadaway asks Melanie about her journey towards her current role, and the initiatives that she is most proud of.
My first degree was in Theological Studies – I learned languages like Greek and Hebrew. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated, but towards the end of my time on that course, I got the chance to lead peer tutoring sessions. That was my first experience with teaching. Ever since then I’ve found that helping others to learn comes naturally to me and that I enjoy it.
I studied for a masters degree in Education, Curriculum and Instruction and then a PhD in Education, both at universities in the Caribbean. I also got some experience as a primary school teacher. Both my research and first-hand teaching experience made me realise the power of education, and boosted my interest in pedagogy, and in how people interact with education based on their identities.
The most rewarding thing about my job is getting to hear from students about how I have made them feel, and the goals I’ve helped them to meet.
I’m very proud of the work that I did early on in my career. I worked with small, faith-based universities in the Caribbean to help them achieve accreditations that weren’t always clearly related to their religious ethos.
These universities were already doing a fantastic job of giving students a quality learning experience, so really my work involved helping them showcase the strength of their teaching and acknowledge just how brilliant their educational offering was.
Having that accreditation meant that these small institutions were able to start competing with larger and more well-known ones. Showing these universities that they could maintain both good academic practice and a faith-led approach was very inspiring for me.
I’m also proud of the anti-racist work I’ve been doing in recent years and continue to do now. Often this work isn’t about strategies and initiatives but just about how I support individual students and staff members. The most rewarding thing about my job is getting to hear from students about how I have made them feel, and the goals I’ve helped them to meet.
A lot of Black students don’t trust institutions, but I can refer them to people who can support them in specific ways once I have gained their trust. It’s incredibly hard for students to navigate the structure of Higher Education spaces in this country, so I help them find their way wherever I can.
When I work with a new university, I immediately try to find its Black students – their societies, but also students as individuals – and ask what they need, and what they think the long-standing issues are.
Sometimes I carry this work out through group sessions and structured investigations, but again, I feel my most valuable work happens in one-to-one conversations. Black students are often the most marginalised people within a university, so I feel that I really need their perspectives to get an understanding of the problems. I learn from them too – they are always so insightful and energetic.
Whenever I come into university spaces, though, I’m always doing so from a position of seniority. This gives me access to important conversations, and I learn as much from what isn’t said as what is.
For example, if I’m sitting in a top university committee meeting and nobody mentions anti-racism, then I get the sense that that university is more focused on meeting metrics than on improving the experiences of marginalised students.
I always call out problems when I witness them, but at the same time, I make it clear that I’m not there to antagonise people within that space. It’s important that conversations are healthy and productive – that’s why I call out unacceptable behaviour in the first place.
You’re right to say that every university is different, and setting and context is an important part of this. I used to work at SOAS, which has a reputation for being very engaged in discussions around anti-racism and aware of the problems within Higher Education institutions.
Just as with a senior member of staff at any university, I expected a lot from SOAS and held staff there to a higher standard than I would in a university where people are only just getting access to these concepts. Staff members either need to come to these conversations humble and ready to learn, or in the know about the issues and ready to change.
In Trinidad where I’ve worked previously, though, the post-colonial context in which that university sits means that my approach involves building people up, while correcting some broadly-held colonial attitudes.
Find someone you want to emulate – someone who looks like you or that you relate to on a personal level, especially if you’re a person of colour. People you admire who are in later stages of their career will always be willing to give you their time, because they’ve been in your shoes before and know how it feels.
Dr Eric Williams, the first president of Trinidad and Tobago. Even though he was educated in the UK and a leadership figure, he never stopped engaging with real people and listening to their perspectives. His vision for the University of the West Indies as an institution that could be built by and for people in the Caribbean, in a decolonial way, has always inspired me.
Dr Eric Williams’ dissertation ‘Education in the British West Indies’, which I’ve returned to many times as a guide and to connect me to my roots.