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Fighting for e/quality

Fighting for e/quality:
Comparative ethnographies of new student movements

About the project

In recent years, a growing number of students globally have strongly criticised their universities for re-producing problematic and discriminating hierarchies of knowledge and people. In different ways, they have mobilised to make higher education a more socially just space for all students. This has creatively opened up spaces for debates on the quality of public higher education towards questions of equality, decolonisation and marginalised ways of knowing.  

Based on comparative ethnographic studies at public universities in the USA, the UK, South Africa and Denmark, this research project aims to investigate the role and meaning of students’ claims and actions for a more socially just public university across different national and institutional contexts. 

By gaining empirical insight into selected spaces of political and academic contestation in different countries, the overall project aims to contribute to ongoing debates around how to balance values of equality and diversity with unfettered speech, and whether different criteria for knowledge production and critical debate could and should be promoted in different places. 

The project is financed by DFF, the Independent Research Fund Denmark and lasts from 1/2 2020 until 31/1 2023.

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The overall project consists of four different sub-projects, focusing on the USA, the UK, South Africa and Denmark. Read more below.

Lærke Cecilie Anbert – PhD fellow

As a PhD fellow, Lærke will undertake fieldwork in the United States of America, at University of California, Berkeley. UC Berkeley is included into this project because it (1) is self-positioning as an alternative to more established universities, (2) it has a long history with student activism around issues of free speech and (3) there is ongoing student activism that aims to challenge national and local debates on justice-oriented issues.

Student activists in the US are calling for so-called “de-naming” of campus buildings to avoid racist and colonial connotations, decolonizing of curricula, no-platforming and demonstrations to prevent what they deem to be “hate-speech” while simultaneously holding university administrations accountable for diversity and inclusion policies to protect minority students. In this PhD project, Lærke aims to investigate the contentions and negotiations between students and staff over demands to decolonize education and create “safer spaces”, through studying the practice of student demands through relevant courses, de-naming and no-platforming protests and other measures. Through ethnographic fieldwork, she will explore the ongoing debates and engage in creating a reflective space for the involved interlocutors.

Maya Acharya – PhD fellow

Maya’s PhD project focuses on the UK context, where ethnographic fieldwork will be carried out at Goldsmiths University, London.

Despite the University’s official line, reports have pointed to severe shortcomings when it comes to the experience and opportunities for students of colour which has, in recent years, led to a student mobilising for reform under the rubric of racial justice and decolonisation. In the spring of 2019, the student group Goldsmith’s Anti-Racist Action (GARA) held a 137-day occupation, successfully pushing forward a list of demands to be met by University management — an action historically unique both in its success and its specificity of demands.

Set against the UK’s specific historical backdrop of colonialitiy and racial justice movements, this project aims to explore the recent frictions and synergies arising from ongoing negotiations, between racialised student activists and university management, to implement anti-racist measures at Goldsmiths. 

Maya graduated from the University of Copenhagen with a master’s degree in Advanced Migration Studies. She also holds a BA in Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies from Cardiff University. Her research interests and knowledge are particularly focussed on racialisation, sexuality, and migration. Maya works within the intersections between activism and academia; she has a background in communications and journalism, and is co-founder of Copenhagen-based literature festival (un)told pages.

Gabriella Muasya – affiliated PhD fellow

Gabriella Muasya’s research project focuses on student activism in South Africa. Using ethnographic methods, the project examines the relationship between digital media and social justice-oriented student movements within higher education. In South Africa, the digital and physical movements #Rhodesmustfall and #Feesmustfall became central and influenced student movements globally protesting for a more decolonized and democratic university. This study will examine the type of knowledge(s) assembled, negotiated and co-produced amongst the student groups in their fight for a different, equal and common university. 

Gabriella has a BA in Cultural Encounters from Roskilde University and MA in Media Practice for Development and Social Change from University of Sussex. She is a One World Media fellow, directed and produced documentary films and international campaigns. She is drawn by issues concerning gender, identity formation, citizenship, decolonization, globalization and neoliberalism.

Gabriella’s four-year PhD study is funded by the Graduate School of Arts, Aarhus University.    

Gritt B. Nielsen – project coordinator

Gritt is associate professor in educational anthropology and globalisation at DPU, Aarhus University. 

Her research interests revolve around the ways in which policies and practices of participation and democracy are changing with ongoing reforms of the (welfare)state and its educational institutions. Among other, she has done research on students’ shifting forms of political and pedagogical participation and how ideas about good and relevant knowledge are reshaped through globalising and localising processes. She takes particular interest in how alternative understandings and responses to dominant knowledge regimes are developed and circulated, for example in activist groups of students and staff, and why and how certain ideas and practices are ‘scaled up’, universalised and gain impetus in wider settings.  

In this project, Gritt focuses on the ongoing discussions in Denmark around how to balance quests for inclusion and social justice in Danish higher education with values of free speech and academic freedom. She collaborates with colleagues in South Africa, the UK and the USA and, together with project participants, explores interconnections, similarities and differences between struggles and activities at the selected sites. In doing so, she will develop insights into cross-cutting methodological and theoretical themes and concepts with the aim of contributing to the development of higher education as a common good in the interest of a more cohesive and egalitarian society.