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Student Voice

Toppling Colonisation : reflections for Bristol

This summer, students in Bristol were juggling multiple major responsibilities at once:  managing the pandemic; adjusting to online assessments; and fighting different forms of injustice. The city made global headlines in June after the statue of Edward Colston was toppled by protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement. The move conveyed an intense urgency to demand action and to make change and progress and it further solidified the sense of people’s power and willingness to demand immediate action. Bristol’s position in British colonial history is significant, and this has had implications on the University of Bristol, historically and presently.  

There are several ways in which colonisation manifests itself in the University of Bristol, like many other academic institutions in the UK and around the world.  

  • It is estimated that 85% of the capital used to establish the University depended on enslaved people’s labour, much of which is linked to the names Wills, Fry, and Colston, which are all represented in the University logo (Stone, 2018).  
  • In terms of representation within faculty and staff members, reports have found that 68% of active professors across the United Kingdom are white males, and only 0.1% are Black women (Adams & Batty, 2019).  It was only this past January that UoB appointed the first Black female History professor in the UK, Professor Olivette Otele.  

Furthermore, it seems that the same demographic also dominates sources and references within the teaching material across the University. One student interviewed as part of the BME (Black & Minority Ethnicities) Attainment Gap Report claimed that studying Historical English Literature is almost “100% white and 90% male” (Phillips, Rana-Deshmukh, & Joseph, 2017).  Speaking to the Epigram, President of BME Medics at the University, Eva Larkai, noted that studying clinical signs and skin conditions focuses majorly on white populations; as conveyed through pictures, experiments, and research papers (Damelin, 2020). 

Even within the University’s civic environment, forms of discrimination are unfortunately still seen. Reflecting on his experience as a Black student in Bristol, Ayo Anibaba states, “The casual, everyday racism that students face in the city can be unwelcoming” (Anibaba, 2018). This is reiterated by many students, including Kim Singh-Sall, who told the Epigram that while being the only non-white student in some seminars, she was “sometimes ‘uncomfortable’ and almost ‘expected to speak’ about topics related to race and identity” (Damelin, 2020). 

The aforementioned phenomena are only some of the ways in which colonisation impacts our present day, especially within the context of the University of Bristol. Understanding these impacts is an essential step within the process of decolonisation and dismantling the systematic discrimination. Only once that is achieved can the University truly fulfil its ambition as set out by Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Hugh Brady, to be “globally renowned both for the quality of our teaching and learning environment and for the excellence and breadth of our research and scholarship” (University of Bristol, n.d.). 

Next steps

The University of Bristol has created a new online course on approaches to decolonising the curriculum, available for free online on the Futurelearn platform. Decolonising Education: From Theory to Practice helps staff at education institutions to get to grips with the nature of the colonial legacy on our current state of knowledge and learning practices. The course explores the nature of the colonial legacy on our current state of knowledge and learning practices, and how decolonisation of the curriculum is important for social and epistemic justice.

Bibliography 

Adams, R., & Batty, D. (2019, February 4). Black female professors must deal with bullying to win promotion, report finds. Retrieved October 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/feb/04/black-female-professors-report  

Stone, R. (2018). Past Matters: the University of Bristol and transatlantic slavery. Retrieved October 2020, from The University of Bristol: http://www.bris.ac.uk/university/history/past-matters/  

Anibaba, A. (2018, February). Being black at Bristol’s universities. Retrieved October 2020, from The Bristol Cable: https://thebristolcable.org/2018/02/being-black-bristols-universities-young-people-of-colour/#article-top  

Phillips, A., Rana-Deshmukh, A., & Joseph, C. (2017). BME Attainment Gap Report. Bristol: Bristol SU.  

Damelin, N. B. (2020, July 17). What does ‘decolonising the curriculum’ mean for the University of Bristol? Retrieved October 2020, from Epigram: https://epigram.org.uk/2020/07/17/what-does-decolonising-the-curriculum-mean-for-the-university-of-bristol/  

University of Bristol. (n.d.). Our vision. Our strategy. Retrieved from University of Bristol: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/university/documents/governance/policies/university-strategy.pdf 

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