Changing Mindsets or Changing Culture? Why not both! A reflection of the 2018 Changing Mindsets Mid-Project Conference

Author: Maisha Islam, University of Winchester  

This blog piece will reflect upon the 2018 Changing Mindsets Mid-Project Conference from my perspective as both a delegate and student panellist from the University of Winchester. The conference was held on a sunny late-June day hosted in an architecturally impressive building at the University of Portsmouth, bringing together 200 delegates from each partner university and beyond!

Whilst I am fortunate to say that I have attended (and presented at) many conferences around Student Engagement this year, the Changing Mindsets conference was by the far the one I had most anticipated – through genuine excitement of discussing issues I so passionately speak about (i.e. race in Higher Education and society), to the nervousness of having been asked to be the University of Winchester’s student panellist representative.

However, the day did not disappoint and I’m sure my Twitter followers were driven crazy as to how many times I was tweeting throughout day (which, I’m sure, is a sign of a more-than-good conference!). Immediately, the tone of the conference was set by Dr Jessica Gagnon and Juan Batley who delivered a passionate start by myth-busting common tropes associated with BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students in terms of the alarming national gaps surrounding attainment and retention. The two findings which stood out for me were the ‘tariff on entry’ and ‘qualification type’ myth in which it was highlighted that, even when White students and BAME students had achieved the same entry points to university or have the same qualification type (e.g. BTEC vs. A-level), an attainment gap was still evident.

It is the myths like the latter which perpetuate a deficit model account of why BAME students are ‘underachieving’ in comparison and is yet another lazy excuse which does not challenge the deeper structural workings within Higher Education. This is exactly why projects like Changing Mindsets are so important and necessary. Whilst my experience of the conference was enlightening, thought-provoking and inspiring, I would like to share my own highlights which may be deemed slightly understated.

1. Representation was alive and thriving

As a South-Asian Muslim woman, the feeling of difference is not something uncommon. Though its feel has often become second-nature, when I attend conferences it usually becomes exacerbated. Though my internal monologue usually asks “Am I the only brown face here?”, recently I have also been asking “Am I the only hijabi here?” too. It was therefore refreshing to see and hear from Project Officer, Arif Mahmud as the one of the opening speakers of the conference; a brown face front and centre! You can check out his presentation linking creativity and innovation to developing growth mindsets here, which was both engaging and humorous with audience participation and a great video explaining why unconscious racial bias is natural, but that acknowledging it is the starting point of unlearning it.

Additionally, it was great seeing so many women at the forefront of this project, particularly when the feeling of ‘Imposter Syndrome’ has been something I personally confront and battle on the daily. As such, seeing Project Officer, Jenny Terry’s presentation about the tools used to facilitate growth mindsets was particularly powerful. Whilst you can check out her presentation here, Jenny mentioned towards the end about her own overcoming of public speaking in the pursuit of an academic career. The rawness of her story resonated with me personally, where my own fear of this has not only been a struggle but has led to a lot of regret. Nevertheless, Jenny was great in reiterating the fact that people are not born with amazing abilities, abilities need to be worked at in order to be truly great – which is essentially the ethos of changing mindsets!

2. Allies for change

What I also appreciated was the real nature of which conversations around race and class were addressed. For a person of colour, you must frequently censor yourself when addressing the uncomfortable and potent topic of race; and more often than not, there is the inability of the majority of White individuals to fully attempt to even conceptualise the implications of race within society. Project Officer, Liam Greenslade’s presentation on decolonising the curriculum was pertinent in addressing the latter – it was especially interesting to hear his own account of decolonising the curriculum from the perspective of being the son of Irish migrants in an English grammar school. It seems there is great work that is taking place in creating ‘identity safe spaces’ at Canterbury Christ Church University to address harsh truths emanating from students’ race and ethnicities, and that claiming blindness to these characteristics is neither attainable or desirable.

Decolonising the curriculum is therefore about moving away from White, middle-class perspectives and challenging practitioners to look for literature originating from elsewhere that speaks to the interests, passions and backgrounds of students of colour.

Also putting this into practise, Project Officer Vikki Hill spoke about the co-creation of policy and curriculum by staff and students to decolonise the arts curriculum at the University of the Arts London. I really enjoyed picking up their zine showcasing some creative pieces from students at UAL – it definitely made the train journey back home a lot more interesting! A stand out piece for myself was Yasmeen Thantrey’s piece on whether being somewhere has come through your own merit, or whether it came through the ‘perk of being an ethnic minority’ (though I would strongly encourage everyone to have a browse here).

Along with the “Am I the only brown person/hijabi here?” question when I go along to such events, I also have the luxury of asking the “What can I eat here?” question when lunch is being served. I am constantly intently looking at the mini menu boards as my dietary requirements are extremely specific, with religious needs and allergies to be mindful of. Although I always state on registration forms that I eat Halal meat, I never expect this to be accommodated for (due to being a somewhat uncommon request) and am always the ‘default vegetarian’. As I wandered down the lunch queue, my face lit up and mouth dropped when I saw a range of food options, with aptly named ‘Halal Bridge the Gap Meat and Fish’ platters. Needless to say, I was extremely grateful that Portsmouth had recognised me (and others!) with such a small but powerful declaration of ‘we acknowledge and respect your requirements’ – I would urge every institution to do the same!

3. The struggle is real

Though the term BAME is rather contentious and does fall risk of ignoring the diversity of a great mix of students, the conference brought together the experiences of a vast array of BAME individuals who seemed to consolidate the fact that, despite our unique differences, there will always be a common struggle as a result of the colour of our skin and diverse backgrounds. To me, this was highlighted through the keynote delivered by Amatey Doku (NUS Vice President for Higher Education). Whilst Amatey spoke about how ‘fixing the Black attainment gap’ was a top priority for the NUS, his own experiences were disheartening to say the least. From the controversy surrounding a stolen bronze cockerel in a Cambridge hall (in which its crows should not be heard from again following its removal), to Amatey’s own strategic navigations at a predominantly White institution.

Amatey also highlighted many points about: the subtle ways in which institutions infer that your presence (as a BAME or lower socio-economic background student) is not really welcomed or accommodated for, and how there needs to be a ‘step-change’ approach with the seriousness driven by senior management instead of a ‘silver bullet’ approach to the BAME attainment gap.

The shared struggle for students of colour was also highlighted during the Race and Class in Higher Education student panel. We had all hit on the fact that institutions were designed to and reproduce structures that disadvantage students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds. I was grateful to have these conversations in partnership with my incredibly intelligent fellow panellists where we could share our experiences, but also give our own recommendations for institutions looking to improve the current context of race and class in Higher Education.

4. Hope is on the horizon

In light of these widespread issues underpinned by race and class, having the ending keynote speech by the University of Portsmouth’s Chancellor, Karen Blackett OBE, was the perfect way to wrap up the conference. On the panel, I had mentioned the importance of recognising intersectionality as it is almost impossible for me to divorce my experiences neatly from both my race and overt practicing of my religion. Therefore, seeing and hearing from an incredibly successful individual like Karen (Chairwoman of MediaCom UK) speak about overcoming difficulties created by both her race and gender was much needed – she could inspire women about battling sexism, but also people of colour about battling racism, even in the face of losing an advertising contract from a company who arrogantly did not want to work with a black female business director.

Her own story drew similarities to Meyer’s (2003) minority stress model, which states that marginalisation and stress are further induced the more intersectional your identity is. This may be why, as Karen mentioned, that many individuals ‘cover’ thereby suppressing their natural differences which are contrary to mainstream norms – a shocking 79% of BAME individuals were reported to ‘cover’ in their place of employment (Smith and Yoshino, 2013). As a result, Karen’s central message around authenticity and self-belief was powerful in encouraging growth mindsets – simply changing the belief of ‘I can’t do it’ to ‘I can’t do it yet’ in the face of adversity.

However, the most important aspect of Karen’s speech was that she was a real model and not just a role model. Where she stated that had she had ‘covered’ and downplayed who she was, it would not have been authentic and has been key to her success. As such, not only does one need to see the change to be the change, but the characteristics that society can often shame us into having are the very ones that we should be celebrating.

At this end note, I would like to thank the entire Changing Mindsets team (from the Project Officers to the Event Management team) for inviting me to come and speak and hosting a great conference – I look forward to hearing more about the final event in February 2019, and hearing more about the University of Portsmouth’s initiatives to eliminate their attainment gap by 2020. Additionally, many thanks to Professor Sherria Hoskins who had started the intervention; it is a true testament to her dedication in eradicating the attainment gap and her devotion to the fact that every student (regardless of their background) has the right to belong, enjoy and thrive at university.

Maisha Islam is the administrator for the Centre for Student Engagement at the University of Winchester. She graduated in 2017 with a first-class honours degree in BA (Hons) Sociology, also gaining the Prize for outstanding dissertation and overall grade in Sociology. Her dissertation focussed on the representation of Muslims in the British print media, but also how Muslims are able to use social media to challenge these representations. Her current interests lie in topics surrounding race and religion (specifically Islam) within Higher Education.

Twitter: @MaishaIslam_28



Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, Social Stress, and Mental Health in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations: Conceptual Issues and Research Evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), pp. 674–697.

Smith, D. and Yoshino, K. (2013). Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion. [online] Deloitte. Available at: .