What does ‘decolonising the curriculum’ mean for the University of Bristol?


By Noa Blane Damelin, Digital Features Editor

Over the past few months, the University of Bristol has committed to decolonising the Bristol curricula, changing the University logo and establishing an anti-racism Steering Group. How are these changes going to impact our university experience?

There are many ways in which academics and activists have interpreted the impetus to decolonise curricula, none of which are mutually exclusive. To take the movement at face value, decolonising curricula can simply mean incorporating non-European thinkers, movements and histories into our University reading lists.

Shifting the content we study away from the traditional troupe of white, male thinkers and academics would assign far greater agency to non-European movements and peoples both from the past and today.

Other initiatives to decolonise curricula also prompt students to analyse the historical and social context from which 'knowledge’ has emerged. It is essential to scrutinise the context in which academics and intellectuals emerged as leaders in their respective fields in order to understand the ways in which we are all products of our environment.

Coming to terms with systemic white privilege in academia also allows us to recall marginalised voices and rediscover new intellectuals who may have been left out of the traditional canon.

Calls to decolonise the curricula are not limited to Arts and Humanities, however; Epigram spoke to Eva Larkai, President of BME Medics at the University of Bristol, who said:

‘We should see BAME representation in our clinical teaching. For example, many clinical signs and skin conditions appear different in people of colour and there are BAME health inequalities that currently exist in our NHS,’

‘This is not something that can be resolved overnight but requires a deliberate and continuous commitment to long-term institutional culture change.’

Part of this culture change must include recruiting more students from BAME backgrounds. The University of Bristol has already taken steps in the right direction on this matter; on 11 June Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady reported that Bristol has seen a 44% increase in BAME student enrolments in the past five years.

However, the negative impacts of the relative lack of diversity in the University of Bristol student body are still apparent for now. First Year History student Kim Singh-Sall told Epigram that as the only non-white student in some of her seminars she has sometimes felt ‘uncomfortable’, or even like she is ‘expected to speak’ about topics related to race and identity.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Undergraduate Education Officer for the year 2019-20, also wrote a statement for Epigram, commenting:

From being the only Black person in the lecture theatre and having everyone look to me to answer anything about race and its intersections to being unable to access support services because they weren't culturally competent, I've had negative experiences as a result of a lack of diversity at the University of Bristol.

[But] I think it's also important to highlight that alongside the negative experiences I was able to meet and engage with people and groups that were doing work to push for greater diversity as well as creating a community for myself and other Black, and non-black people of colour to engage with and be supported by.’

It is essential to highlight students like Hillary, Kim and Eva who are putting in tireless work to foster diverse communities within the University.

Bristol has seen a 44% increase in BAME student enrolments in the past five years

It is also important to hire more diverse staff. A relative lack of BAME University staff is not a problem unique to the University of Bristol. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency released on 23 January, only 17 percent of University staff in the UK come from BME backgrounds. Of that, only 1.9 percent are Black.

However, the University of Bristol are already committed to making change on this matter, most notably hiring Professor Olivette Otele – the first Black female History professor in the UK – as the new Professor in the History of Slavery.

Professor Otele started her role in January and has already provided an invaluable voice as Bristol is currently grappling with its own history as a financial beneficiary of the slave trade, including being appointed as the Independent Chair of Bristol City Council’s Commission on Race Equality.

The University also announced they are allowing students who have been deeply affected by events relating to the Black Lives Matter movement to apply for Extenuating Circumstances to mitigate their summer exam results.

Calls to decolonise the University experience have clearly already made an impact at Bristol, from diversifying reading lists to recruiting more BAME students and staff. The University has already committed to reviewing building names, changing the University logo, and decolonising curricula.

Today, as protests and petitions demand even more attention, we seem to be poised for even more positive change.

Featured Image: Unplash / Grady Houger

What does decolonising the curriculum mean to you?