Opinion | Social inclusion at the University of Bristol

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James Fishwick, President of the 93% Club Bristol

Any student from an under-represented background will not be surprised by the University of Bristol’s ranking in this year’s Times HE Social Inclusion Survey. This is because it confirms what each of us already know and experience: that we live in a divided academic community, in a university which isn’t getting any more inclusive.

According to the survey, the University of Bristol is the 14th best University in the UK, 6th for research quality, 20th for graduate prospects and 62nd in the world (according to QS World Rankings). Whilst some of those positions have fluctuated, Bristol’s ranking on social inclusion is constant: it is 114th out of 116 UK universities, the third worst in the country.

This begs the question: why should students agree to be used in the University’s adverts, or to be representatives at recruitment events, when the University cannot improve their overall social inclusion ranking? There is obviously a systemic problem which has not been addressed for a number of years.

The impacts of a lack of social inclusion upon students, their wellbeing and their university experience is why this issue matters. It is important to recognise that social inclusion refers to multiple demographics, from percentage of students from fee paying independent schools and from ethnic minority backgrounds, to first generation students and more.

As someone who came into Bristol through an access scheme and a contextual offer, I have sat in many seminars and with good confidence been able to assume that no one else entered in that way. A friend of mine can sit in a lecture theatre of 80 and be the only person of colour.

You have to wonder why the University doesn't act on this faster

A notable experience is attending a social in my first year for this newspaper where a section editor spoke about how contextual offers devalued degrees for other students. It seemed like nobody even considered that someone in the room could have benefitted from such a program, nor the alienation that statement could generate.

Then when you think about how many other students experience this kind of subtle prejudice, but on the basis of race, or financial background, you have to wonder how it affects their wellbeing, academic progress and life in general.

You also have to wonder why the University doesn’t act on this faster.

The lack of social inclusion at Bristol is pervasive and not just academic. Many students feel out of place each time they step on and off campus, or open the door to their student houses.

However, some progress has been made in certain areas for the year 2020/21. The percentage of students from fee paying schools decreased from around 34% to 28.7%, its lowest in many years.

However, this change is likely to be the result of pandemic-induced grade inflation, and not based on the successful outcomes of a specific access scheme.

a lack of progress on social inclusion within the student community can make Bristol an unwelcoming place

There is some brilliant work done by the University to encourage students to study at Bristol, with dedicated staff and students working event after event, day after day to enable students like myself to get into the University.

They attempt to break down the preconceptions and structures that act as barriers for students to participate. An increasingly diverse student community is pivotal to a healthier and effective learning environment; continued inaction on social inclusion means that the University is only preventing its students from reaping the potential benefits of their education.

What more could be done to increase social inclusion? Perhaps a greater use of the contextual offer scheme, offering more places for students on access schemes, actively championing student groups who promote social inclusion for students from their backgrounds or, a personal favourite of mine, introducing a cap on students from fee paying schools.

Bristol has its many issues and, although we all love and hate it in many ways, these issues are formative to our experiences. But a lack of progress on social inclusion and bad attitudes within the student community can make Bristol an unwelcoming place for students from under-represented backgrounds - the experiences of students as well as the statistics from the Times Higher Education Survey continue to show this.

Ultimately, this confirms part of Hugh Brady’s legacy as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol as one of social division and inequality. And with Brady moving onto Imperial, who rank 112th out of 116, it will be interesting to see how they fare in the future.

Featured image: Clay Banks


What are your thoughts on the levels of social inclusion at the University? Let us know!

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