A statue of Cecil Rhodes has stood for more than a century in the heart of Oxford.

Placed high above two monarchs and a host of college worthies, his ‘splendid generosity’ celebrated in a large Latin inscription, no one could doubt his importance to Oriel College. Since 2015, however, Rhodes has assumed a more general – even universal – significance, as a symbol of Oxford’s entanglement with empire. His statue has been the focus of protests, petitions and discussions all across the globe. In the last few weeks, the fellows of Oriel have voted to remove it for good. Many people have offered their opinions on the statue, but the voices of current Oxford students have been neglected in this debate. Here, some of the current St John’s students ask, ‘Should Rhodes fall?’

Fourth Year Physics student: Yes, he should. He actively believed in the supremacy of the white race and laid the groundwork for apartheid and land theft that continues to haunt entire regions until today. His scholarship was meant to educate future colonisers, and Rhodesia continues to be a symbol of the far right. His statue is a symbol of Oxford’s inability to fully deal with its colonial past. This is not erasing history, it is truly confronting it and recognising its role in shaping today. In the words of today’s crowd, take him down!

Anonymous student: It’s difficult to argue that the statue’s location does not honour or glorify Cecil Rhodes and his philosophies. Any argument for keeping it therefore is rooted in support, or at least indifference to the global harm he caused.

Second Year Maths student: Like it or not, his name is associated with an incredibly prestigious scholarship and the effects of his money are no longer as attached to colonisation as they would have been when the statue was put up. That being said, it is inappropriate to give him such a physical plinth when his views are so totally incompatible with today’s zeitgeist. I don't think there's anything actively wrong with taking down the statue.

Second Year History student: Keeping Rhodes up perpetuates an assumption that these white imperialist figures we are so used to seeing were, and still are, worthy of being raised on a plinth because of their goodwill or philanthropy – as if this outweighs the racist and imperialist basis of how they came to hold and maintain this power. It should come down, but even if it does, Oxford will remain institutionally racist.

Second Year History student: Statues aren’t about history; they’re about constructing a heritage, a popular shared memory or impression of the past. History is written in books, and won’t change because of us tearing down a statue. However, the existence of a statue of a particular person in a public place contributes to an idea that that person is authoritative, noble, to be admired or thanked; and so the particular statues that we have up partly determine who we remember as such. Given that not everyone can have a statue, we need to constantly choose which historical figures get a statue, and that choice might as well be grounded in an idea about who we want to admire and thank. Do we want to admire and thank Rhodes and Colston?

Anonymous student: That the university wouldn't get rid of a statue that is causing so many people a lot of pain for the sake of money is deeply disturbing. How the university wants to preach about access and equality, when it is actively engendering the monetisation of exoneration, is incomprehensible. The university teaches us to challenge socio-political devices like monuments and statues and to be wary of the history they create, only to lash out at students who challenge its very own versions of these devices?

Third Year Oriental Studies student: The RMF movement has been criticised by certain academics and historians for trying to shut down conversations and erase history, whereas the reality is entirely the opposite. People aren’t trying to forget Rhodes, they want to reframe the way we see him and the way in which we engage with colonial history, to move away from glorifying Rhodes as a so-called business entrepreneur/diplomat and instead acknowledging him for who he was, a white supremacist and ardent imperialist. The fight to bring down the Rhodes statue (along with the other demands made by the RMF movement) isn’t an attempt to end conversation but an attempt to open ourselves up to a new discussion around colonial history, a conversation that necessitates the removal of a statue that glorifies what should be condemned.

First Year History student: Here is a piece on why statues shouldn’t be taken down. Firstly, it is important to be clear that Rhodes was a terrible person. He believed in the supremacy of the white race, laid the groundwork for apartheid, and operated businesses that if they did not technically enslave, horribly exploited southern African populations. I struggle to think of anyone who more epitomises that terrible phrase, ‘the white man’s burden’, than him. Rhodes is, however, by no means alone in history, nor was he even particularly rare. Famously, there are pages of Churchill quotes that demonstrate he held similarly racist opinions, as there are for rafts of 20th-century figures, from Emmeline Pankhurst to Mahatma Gandhi. My two favourite libraries in Oxford, the RadCam and the Codrington, were both built with bloodstained colonial money. Looking further back in time: Martin Luther was a raving anti-Semite, Queen Anne profited enormously from the slave trade and every medieval noble, let alone monarch, was complicit in perpetuating the economic system that enslaved more than 90% of the population. This is not to downplay or trivialise the horror of Rhodes or Colston, but rather to point out that the charge ‘he held morally reprehensible views’, while true, is applicable to practically every historical figure. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find someone in history who would not be morally reprehensible by today’s standard on at least one point. Thus, any convincing argument as to why Rhodes and Colston should fall, must also explain why Gandhi (or insert historical figure of choice here) should stay up.

Secondly, the problem of statues raises the question as to how we look back on our history. One approach is to ignore or airbrush history, much as Japan did after World War Two and as we as a nation did for years after the Empire had ended. It is clear, I think, that this is not the way forward. Active conflict with history, constantly challenging and reflecting upon our past, rather than ignoring it, produces both better understanding, and I think, better modern behaviour.

Now there is a strong argument that taking these statues down is how we best confront our history. My response to this, however, is that this perpetuates a certain narrative of history that is incredibly damaging. For if history can be confronted simply by taking down the Rhodes and Colstons of this world, than it suggests that it was these individuals that were the problem: bad apples in an otherwise acceptable society. This, though, is patently untrue. The most remarkable and horrifying facet of these statues is not that there existed in the 1890s or 1700s people with morally reprehensible views but that society celebrated them, cheered them as heroes and erected statues of them. The ‘white man’s burden’ was not a philosophy practised only by Rhodes but by wider society. Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897, a festival of the British Empire, the event for which Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ was originally written, was attended by vast swathes of people, all caught up in imperialism. It is not Rhodes we must necessarily confront, although the issues may have been more acute in him, but the society that championed him. Failing to do so, by targeting only the individuals, exculpates that society.

Lastly, I am in no way in favour of just letting statues exist as they are. That ignores history entirely. But I think people underestimate the power of turning statues into memorials of past wrongs. One of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen was the Soviet monument to victory in war in Riga. Not though because this bastion of Stalinist architecture was in any way inspiring, or the Red Army soldiers depicted at all empathetic, but because to modern Latvians it was no longer a war memorial, instead a BMX bike park. Nothing was more emblematic, I thought, of a democratic Latvia emerging from the tyranny of the past, than Latvian teenagers doing backflips over the pride of the Red Army. Returning to statues, the Codrington staff have put a plaque detailing Mr Codrington’s involvement in slavery on his statue. I saw this the first time I worked in the library, and now, every time I see the statue, every time I set foot in the library, indeed every time I think of the library, I associate it with the wrongs of our past society. Leaving the statue up, but reframing it in the context of colonialism, has pushed me to actively engage with Britain’s guilty history. Had the statue been taken away, or had it been left alone, the same effect would not have been produced. These statues are evidence of a morally reprehensible past, but it is that very fact that means leaving them up can do the most good.

The statue offends, but isn’t that offence the point? I want to be offended by the bad in Britain's past, because there is much that was bad. If we want to decolonise curricula and teach imperial history, a contextualised Rhodes statue is a good way of doing that for an audience far beyond those who are privileged enough to do an Oxford history degree. Admittedly, this does have its limits. When Franco's tomb became a shrine to Neo-fascism, moving it to an unknown location was the right thing to do. But I don't think Rhodes is yet eliciting a similar response from modern populations, indeed quite the opposite.

Second Year History student: Until recently I wasn’t sure about pulling down statues, but after seeing the residents of Bristol tear down Edward Colston, I’ve been converted to the idea. There was something really moving about seeing Bristolians take matters into their own hands; it felt like they were reclaiming their city. We can’t change Oxford’s past, and we shouldn’t ignore it either, but people should be able to have a say in what the present and the future of their city looks like. Rhodes, and the racist imperialism he represents, are completely the opposite of what most people in 2020 think Oxford should be about. The presence of Rhodes in such a public and such an exalted position doesn’t just represent the past, it hangs over Oxford’s present in a way which I don’t think is constructive. He has become symbolic of imperialism and racism, and the University’s continued tolerance of Rhodes, suggests a tolerance of these ideas. I’d like to see a consultation with the residents of Oxford as well as members of the university to determine the future of the statue. I don’t think he’ll last long.

Anonymous student: Jimmy Saville’s philanthropy means nothing in the face of his sexual crimes and abuse. We would not erect or maintain any statue in his honour. The fact that the university continues to turn a blind eye to the trauma and alienation this statue represents is disgusting. Rhodes must fall.

Anonymous student: I think there are valid comments about the statue as a historic item, but it belongs in a museum where people can choose to go and learn about colonialism and its impacts. The idea that the statue is still worthy of public display seems to suggest we can think of no individual more worthy of praise! For this reason I think it should be removed and replaced with a celebration of someone more relevant to our ambitions for the future as opposed to lingering on our past.

Anonymous student: As a black student, I think Rhodes should fall. I don't want to be reminded of the people that wouldn't have wanted me here and the painful history of black people every time I walk past. I want to see my university care more about reducing pain felt by their students than protecting the legacy of a white supremacist.

Anonymous student: I think whether the statue stays up or doesn’t is somewhat irrelevant. The more important intention behind the movement is, in my opinion, the education and recognition of who Rhodes was and what he actually did in a factual and unbiased manner, therefore including his involvement in slavery and white supremacy. I believe that if the education surrounding his image was thorough and comprehensive, then the power that the statue holds is negated, because the public will no longer regard him with reverence but instead with a practical and empirical view of the racist values Rhodes perpetuated and instigated. However, this is of course contingent on the assumption that everyone regards his role in colonialism and racism as amoral (I would like to believe that everyone can agree he is a bad person once they are educated on what he did). In the absence of intention to celebrate Rhodes, and the presence of a good understanding of the negative aspects of his history, the question of whether the statue should remain becomes more of a symbolic gesture of rejecting Rhodes, which is too subjective to definitively decide, and irrelevant in the aim to fully understand and appreciate our racist history.