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Decolonising the University as an Institution

Professor Judith Squires talks to Alvin Birdi about decolonisation at the University of Bristol and the importance of an institution-wide approach.
I’m very pleased to be joined by Professor Judith Squires, who’s the deputy vice chancellor and provost here at the University of Bristol. Thank you very much, Judith, for joining us today. We in Bristol have particularly tainted history in this regard, with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and so on. But just thinking about Bristol, what does decolonizing the curriculum mean for a university such as ours, given that history that I alluded to, and its status as a Russell Group university, and its stated ambitions to be a global university?
Well, I think we are conscious of the fact that we are a university founded in 1909– so at the end of the slave trade, but founded with the wealth of families who, to a large extent, based in Bristol, as a seafaring port that was really part of that transatlantic slave trade, built up much of their wealth through trading in goods that were produced by enslaved peoples. I think we need to work through what that means for us as an institution, to reflect on the legacy of that and what we do in recognition of that.
So that would be, for me, an important reflection about what it means as Bristol to be thinking about these issues, and also to know that the legacy of the slave trade is a really important issue amongst Bristol as a city. And as a civic university, I think that we really need to think about how we interrogate these issues together as a city and as a university embedded within a city region, and to have a city-wide conversation on that. And we can see the ways in which those legacies are embedded in our own buildings, the names of our buildings, and various possibly cultural assumptions that flow from that.
I think you’ve also asked about what it means as a Russell Group university.
Two things I would think. One is that I’m conscious that we have unacceptably low levels of Black, Asian, minority ethnic staff and students. And that’s probably more acute in Russell Group universities than it is in some others because of sometimes the kind of cultural presumption that we are going to be elite, and that’s exclusionary. So I think there are additional cultural barriers to a Russell Group being as inclusive as we would want to be. And also, more positively, I would say that we have fantastic staff and students who have so much to give on this topic in terms of how we teach and how we research the issues.
So I think as a Russell Group we’re beholden to make sure we can are really proactively interrogating the issues as academics. My next question is really about taking an institutional view when you’re entertaining an exercise such as this. To a very large extent, decolonizing the curriculum is really about empowering and hearing marginal voices that have been occluded in the past, and possibly are still being occluded. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be participatory and inclusive of everybody. And so my question really is, how important is it to take an institutional level approach to this issue of decolonizing the curriculum? Or can we leave it to individual departments, and their staff, and their students?
Really good question– well, I think we’ve got to do both. So I think, if we’re going to really change cultures and structures, we’ve got to take a whole institutional approach. So of course, I think staff and students in departments, in disciplines have got to be part of the– that kind of reconsideration of who’s teaching, what they’re teaching, and how they’re teaching. You can’t just do that at an institutional level. It’s got to be done in open conversations at a disciplinary level– and engaging wider stakeholders outside the university as well, I think. But I also really strongly believe that we need some top down-kind institutional initiatives to support that and underpin that work, and that that can effect real change.
And I’ll give you some examples. I think, if we’re going to shift cultures in an institution, offering anti-racist training for staff and students, for the members of the board, everybody right across the institution’s really important so that we have a shared understanding of what anti-racist work entails and what an anti-racist institution feels like. So I think you need institutional leadership at that level. You also need, I think, institutional drive to really change some of the structural barriers. So for example, we’ve launched a black Bristol scholarship programme over the next four years, which will provide funding, and bursaries, and special access for black and mixed black heritage students through a million pounds’ worth of spending on those scholarships.
And that’s an institutional level commitment because we recognise that we need to do that to address historical underrepresentation of those groups. Or even the appointment of our professor of the history of slavery, which was the university-level appointment that I made, had real academic engagement with the question about the history of– the legacy of the history of slave trade for the university. And so we appointed somebody who is interrogating our own university’s history as a really engaged historian. So those kinds of initiatives, I think, need to be taken at an institutional level, but they absolutely needed to complement much more bottom-up kind of conversations among staff and students.
And you know that the course that we’re putting together here is really aimed at helping people in other institutions, including our own, actually– possibly even in schools and so on– to think about the kind of practical implications of what is entailed in a process of decolonization. So I wonder then, just finally, whether, from a practical perspective, you have any advice to give in this regard. So what are the key considerations in ensuring that a decolonial approach is embedded across a complex institution like a university?
Well, I think it’s a challenge because you are really dealing with deeply embedded structures and quite complicated change. So given that, I think my key recommendation is that it’s a collaborative effort and that you welcome people in. People will have died this approaches, diverse views, so you’re open to the conversation. And sometimes the conversation will be painful, but I think that’s part of the process.
So welcoming the engagement of staff, of students, of alumni, of community groups, even if they are quite critical of the university– I think you’ve got to be willing to engage with that, but also be clear that it’s the responsibility of university leaders to step up and make clear decisions as well– so not to feel that you don’t have the right to lead, if you see what I mean, on these areas. And then to have lots of clear work streams– so we’ve got work streams round about teaching and learning, round about staff recruitment, student recruitment, staff support, student support. We’ve got work streams round about research, and engagement, and governance.
So this is a multifaceted kind of project, so I would set up quite clear governance structures, be clear about who’s leading on each of those things and where they’re reporting. And as I think reporting right up to your key executive board at the university ensures that you really effect change. Great– thank you again, Judith, for joining us. Pleasure–

In this video, Professor Judith Squires, Provost of the University of Bristol talks to Professor Alvin Birdi (one of the lead educators for Week 2 of this course) about the role of the wider university in supporting and enabling decolonisation. She describes supporting activities being undertaken at institutional level at Bristol, such as in recruitment and on countering racism.

The focus of this course is on the decolonisation of various subject disciplines. However, one of the aims of this week’s material is to give you a sense of the bigger picture. Decolonisation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are part of a broader institutional strategy and if they are linked into and receive input from the community outside the academy too.

Later this week, we will look at how the University is also working with the City of Bristol and its communities to ensure that decolonisation efforts learn from and include the views and inputs of a wide sector of the community. After all, one of the purposes of decolonisation is to open the academy to knowledges and people that may have been previously marginalised.

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