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Sanaz Raji: a voice for the voiceless in the British academia

6th February 2015

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The fear of deportation, as pointed out recently in a Guardian article by an international student, often puts off overseas students from political campaigning or participating in protests.


Despite the plethora of issues concerning them, international students have to think twice before raising their voice, expressed the writer.

However, Sanaz Raji, is an example of someone who despite facing the limitations of being an international student, leads the campaign ‘Justice4Sanaz’, intended to expose the “deep-seated racism” in UK universities and bring her “justice” in her on-going legal dispute with the University of Leeds.

Iranian born and living in the United States, Sanaz Raji, has been leading a vocal attack against the supervisors in her department at the University of Leeds, who she accuses of being racist and biased during her studies at the institution.

After gaining a scholarship from the university’s Institute of Communication Studies, Sanaz made a head start in her PhD programme with the intention to carry out research under her proposed supervisor. However, she was assigned another supervisor, who she feels, did not have the requisite knowledge in her field.

“After three months or so I did make my initial reservations known to the research post-graduate tutor in the department, but my requests were rubbished and completely and utterly dismissed.”

In the meantime, she continued with her work despite suffering an ankle fracture and being under a lot of emotional stress.

“My supervisors did not give me adequate supervision I think because I had made it very well known that I wasn’t happy with the kind of supervision I was receiving and they felt offended and didn’t like that a person of colour was complaining. They were angry with that,” she says.

Following this, one day her scholarship was unexpectedly revoked by the department, for the reason of “insufficient academic progress”.

“In the course of my second year, my progress was not considered an issue as such. In my supervision notes no one raised any issues. However if there were issues with my progress then it should have been raised earlier or consistently but that was never the case,” she says emphatically.

She was also thrown out of her student accommodation without any prior notice.

Then she appealed through the university’s internal procedures, who kept her waiting for a year and in the end dismissed her allegations.

“In April 2013, once I received a decision, I went public and put together a petition, which received over a thousand signatures. I contacted the media, student groups and as many people as I could.”

Sanaz believed the “injustice and prejudice” she had suffered needed to be in the public domain and this is how her activist side was born.

 “No one ends up becoming an activist overnight. It has to be some sort of an issue or cause that they have felt dearly or have struggled with or seen other individuals struggling with,” says Sanaz Raji.

Now she organizes demonstrations and speaks vociferously about the concerns of non-EU international and BME students through her blog and at relevant events.

Through the Freedom of Information Data Subject Access Request, she assessed a number of emails exchanged by Leeds University staff about her. She alleges that these emails provide proof of the allegations of racism she had brought against the university staff.


Sanaz’s case is not an isolated event, but highlights a wider issue of racism across British academia.

The findings in the NUS report entitled ‘Race for Equality’ revealed that one in six Black students have experienced racism in their current institution, and one third do not trust their institution to properly handle complaints. 

At a public talk titled, “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?” at University College London, a number of black academics put forward some shocking statistics showing how currently just 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors are black, and only 17 are black women.

Sanaz’s campaign has encouraged more and more non-EU international students to come forward to vent their grievances.

She gives one example of a fellow PhD scholar from Thailand, who was declared unfit for continuing with his PhD due to his English language difficulties after nine months of enrolling on the course.

“By this time, they have already grabbed his money, and wasted his time, while the department was well aware of his English language difficulties from the very beginning.”

After she took his case to the local MP, she says the university quietly decided to pay him his tuition fees money back.

“Once here, paying tens of thousands in fees, international students are treated like criminals,” agrees Gordon Malony, President NUS Scotland in a blog of Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).

Sanaz says she is grateful for the “overwhelming support” that has helped keep her campaign going.

“I am happy because now people are talking about international non-EU students. When I began this two years ago, no one was aware about their concerns.”

At present, she runs the risk of being deported to the US and if this happens she would no longer be able to pursue her case against the University of Leeds.

Now, she is preparing for her upcoming tour which will see her visiting some reputed British Universities to interact with students and also collect some funds to aid her financially to stay here and fight her case. 

“I really hope that with the tour I can have more of a discussion about the academic institutional complex and how it affects non-EU students, especially students of colour using my case as an example.”

“I can do this only with the support of other people. As long as we are working together we can make a very good headway and change,” she says with hope and commitment in her voice.

Find out more about Sanaz’s campaign at:  

Photo Credits: Justice4sanaz

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