In Darkest Oxford, an Asian Is Tested to the Limit

Article excerpt

Later this month, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, is due to receive an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. Several societies at the university have asked him not to come -- the Majlis Asian Society, the Pakistan Society, the Russian Society, the African Society and the Middle Eastern Society.

All this is because a young, Brixton-born-and-bred postgraduate student of Asian origin claims he has suffered severe racial discrimination at the hands of a tutor and that the university, at several junctures, has failed to do anything about it.

The student, Nadeem Ahmed, is a former comprehensive school pupil. He was the editor of the school magazine, as well as head boy. He once came to interview C L R James, who lived above the Race Today premises in Brixton. In those days, about a decade ago, a light intellectual breeze filtered easily through corridors of such comprehensives, exciting young minds with pan-Africanism, particularly the history of the fights against Portuguese colonialism and apartheid.

Nadeem went to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to study philosophy, and was heavily recommended to do a postgraduate degree at Oxford's Oriental Institute. The department is a remote and rather bizarre place, stuck in pre-colonial mode, where some dons are used to studying the natives for their rather odd habits.

One day, a tutor gave a test - a translation from Arabic to English - to his students, who included Nadeem and one other Asian. The two Asians failed, the others passed. Nadeem also failed a resit. He was then asked to leave - although, he alleges, it was suggested to him that he could complete his MPhil in medieval Arabic thought, provided he did not return to take his PhD.

Routine in a university, you may think, but these tests were, Oxford's senior proctor agreed, "flawed as qualifying examinations". …