Colour-blind Racism in University Hiring

By Professor Robin Shields

In Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, the protagonist laments that his town of Dickens has lost its status as an official city. The fictitious city, based closely on Compton in Southern California, becomes absorbed into the greater city of Los of Angeles. The erased city limits of Dickens come to represent the paradoxical status of race, which is both a ubiquitous feature of life yet also a category that is not officially recognized in a “colour-blind” society.

The weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have witnessed two competing discourses on racism in British Universities. On the one hand, universities have been quick to vocalize their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating racial equality in more assertive and urgent terms than in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). On the other hand, critical commentators have rightly pointed to their poor record of supporting racial equality in practice (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). This is evident in the lack of Black members of staff, who comprise just 2.1% of UK university staff but 13% of the population. Universities that truly value Black lives would ensure that they are well-represented and empowered in the organization, but the online movement #BlackInIvory highlights experiences of persistent marginalization.

In response, most universities would point to hiring policies that specifically promote equality, diversity and inclusion. Such policies protect against discrimination by ensuring data on applicants’ social backgrounds (including race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics) is processed separately from the application and by specifically welcoming applicants who hold these “protected characteristics.” Universities could therefore claim that the underrepresentation of Black staff is not due to hiring practices, because these practices do not consider race and therefore cannot be racist.

However, these practices also closely resemble what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (15) terms colour-blind racism, spurious attempts to achieve racial equality by suppressing acknowledgment of racialized histories and identities. Like Beatty’s town of Dickens, color-blind racism erases the city limits, but the landscape remains unchanged. While the categories of race are removed from legitimate discourse, the experiences and standards of dominant race groups remain the norm and expectation in public institutions. This means that students and staff at Universities must confront racist and discriminatory treatment, assumption and expectations, but they are also denied recourse to the terms that would articulate their oppression.

Instead of maintaining a “colour-blind” approach to hiring, British universities could do much more to embody and promote racial justice in their hiring practices. The Equalities and Diversities Act of 2010 allows employers to give preference to under-represented groups in hiring, provided that the candidates are equally qualified (Part 11, Ch 2.4, also 16). In practice, universities tend to cite practices such as targeted advertising or statements welcoming underrepresented groups as positive action (e.g. 17, 18, 19, 20), although the Equalities and Diversities Act instead more directly identifies contracts of employment to equally qualified, applicants from under-represented groups (Part 11, Ch 2.5). Thus, it seems that universities are watering down the intentions of “positive action” and also under-utilizing the means to achieve equitable representation of Black staff provided by current legislation.

A better step to addressing systemic racism in hiring would be to embed contributions to diversity as a priority in appointment criteria. For example, requiring candidates to demonstrate their accomplishments contributing to diversity and inclusion, with the same weight and objectivity that research and teaching are considered, through a written statement would give meaningful recognition to the additional work and challenges that most academics from Black and other minority groups have been required to undertake as part of institutional survival (21, 22). Well-evidenced statements of contributions to diversity are already a standard aspect of academic hiring at many elite universities in other countries.

The title of a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute – The White Elephant in the Room highlights the extent to which the colour-blind approach embraced in British higher education is no longer tenable. However, progress against the report’s top two recommendations, that universities should participate in the sector-wide Race Equality Charter and facilitate more conversations about race, is minimal. More than four years after its inception, only 14 universities have received a bronze level award from the Race Equality Charter, with no awards at higher levels. Writing in the HEPI report, Kalwant Bhopal notes “there is little or no imperative to shift the focus to uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in higher education,” because, unlike Athena SWAN certification, the Race Equality Charter is not required by research councils.

The white elephant in the room also highlights an important aspect of universities; they tend to think of themselves as neutral rather than white spaces, despite the many signs of white dominance. A first step in moving from colour-blind racism to an anti-racist university will be to come to terms with this whiteness, to listen to the experiences of Black academics and other academics of colour (23, 24), to unlearn current practices and to make universities a space that recognizes and values the experiences of Black academics and professionals and ensures their representation as colleagues in universities.

Thanks to Julia Paulson, Deborah Brewis, Ugbaad Aidid and Lizzi Milligan for feedback on a draft of this post

Unheard voices of climate activism

By Angelika Peplinski, Liz Barrett, Muassua David, Natalia Hayes, Gaukhar Kenzhebayeva and Collet Mweene

This blog is an output from a reading group on climate activism that ran from February to March 2020 as part of the Masters unit ‘Education, Peace and Sustainable Development.’

On the 28th February over 15,000 people gathered in Bristol to hear Greta Thunberg and take part in the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate. Despite the miserable weather, Greta’s presence inspired thousands of people to join the collective effort to tackle the ecological crisis and hold politicians and leaders accountable for their lack of action.

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Marching up Park Street following Greta’s talk (photo credit: Aminath Shiyama)

Our capitalist economy has often led us to believe that “the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfilment – [are] in fact a personal deficiency.” We need to be vegan, we need to reduce plastic, we need to use more public transport, we need to fly less: the list is long. While individual action is important, it is fossil fuel corporations that need to be held accountable. The Guardian reports that “a hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%” of carbon emissions since 1988.” Movements like FridaysForFuture or Extinction Rebellion counteract the neoliberal ideology of individualism by collective action as it is “only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis.” However, this idea is not new.

Indigenous resistance is rooted in collectivism. Their “systems of sustainability were destroyed precisely because they were incompatible with systems of exploitation and extraction” (Niheu 2019: 124-125) emblematic of neoliberal ideology.  Via nonviolent collective action, many indigenous communities have sought repatriation: “Indigenous people are the guardians of ancestral knowledge that draws from the environment the solutions of everyday life” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). Therefore, climate justice and indigenous rights interlink. However, this is often not recognised in mainstream media.

Media coverage of the climate emergency focusses mainly on the Global North. It depicts climate activism as led by mainly white, middle class people and thus neglects the experiences of the Global South. Uganda climate activist Vanessa Nakate “was cropped out of a press photo in Davos” when posing alongside white climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. This incident illustrates the connection of climate justice and social justice. Issues of racism need to be addressed as the Global South is experiencing immediate consequences of the ecological crisis. Lake Chad, which used to cover 25,00 square kilometres, now only covers about 2,500. Indigenous communities “have lost 90 per cent of this resource so essential for the life of one of the poorest regions in the world” (Ibrahim 2019: 54). Almost 52 million people in Africa have become food insecure due to the effects of climate change, yet the media often choses to ignore these stories. The irony is not only that the Global South remains unheard while they are the most impacted, but that they also contribute the least amount of the global greenhouse emissions.

The lack of recognition of ethnic minorities and their voices has been an issue for centuries and right now this ignorance poses an immediate danger. With the ongoing disappearance of indigenous knowledge, “it is a part of the memory of humanity that is threatened with extinction” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). More than ever, is it important to include, recognize and represent minorities in discussions regarding climate change and climate activism. Nature is the work tool for many indigenous communities. Hence, their expertise is needed to protect nature. “Indigenous peoples do not want to be silent victims of climate change. They are ready to share their traditional knowledge, and to (re)teach humankind how to live in harmony with nature” (Ibid. 57). It is easy for the Global North to dismiss climate change as an abstract future threat, but activism has the potential to make unheard voices heard: “In the southern narratives, we see how hope, guilt, and anger combine to avert the paralyzing effects of acute fear” (Kleres & Wettergren 2017: 517). The Global North has a responsibility to embrace these feelings in a collective effort to tackle climate change. Activism can pave the way for climate and social justice, but only if we recognise the voices that up to now we have chosen to ignore.



Ibrahim, H. O. (2019). Indigenous people and the fight for survival. In Extinction Rebellion (ed.). This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Penguin Books. pp. 54–57.

Kleres, J., & Wettergren, A. (2017). Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism. Social Movement Studies, 16(5), 507-519. doi:10.1080/14742837.2017.1344546

Niheu, K. (2019). Indigenous resistance in an era of climate change crisis. Radical History Review, 133, 117-130. Available here.


Hong Kong protests and lockdown: Conversation with Dr Liz Jackson

By Dr Janet Orchard

In this post, Janet speaks with her friend and colleague Dr Liz Jackson from the University of Hong Kong regarding the situation in Hong Kong, where protests and Covid lockdown have marked life in the past months. 

I enjoyed catching up with good friend and academic colleague Liz Jackson on Skype this week in anticipation of her key note address to the first ever online University of Bristol School of Education Doctoral Conference on 5th-6th June 2020, which will bring together members of our doctoral community from Hong Kong as well as Bristol and all other parts of the world. You can find out more about Liz’s keynote here; the abstract for her talk is featured at the end of the post.

Liz and I haven’t see each other for months now; normally we would catch up in person three or four times each year; however, with all non-essential travel into Hong Kong from the UK suspended indefinitely for the time being, following the Covid outbreak, we decided to catch up via Skype instead. Our conversation continued in between opening our respective front doors to receive home deliveries: life under lockdown across two continents.

I was keen to know more from Liz about a recent piece she was invited to write on the impact of Covid for teaching and learning in Hong Kong for Postdigital Science and Education (read Liz’s powerful account here). Liz found it impossible to share about Covid in Hong Kong, she explained, without first setting the wider scene of the anti-extradition law protests in Hong Kong over the past year, one in a series of recent movements ongoing in Hong Kong related to Hong Kong’s status and the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement with Mainland China. The Covid response in Hong Kong is certainly related to the past experience with SARS, as several commentators have indicated; however, Liz maintains that the virus also struck a society that was already in crisis. The rest of the world has been rocked by Covid, but Hong Kong society was already in shock, profoundly shaped by months of experiencing precariousness and instability, both politically and socially; in other words, putting it crudely perhaps, just another shock.

At a personal level, Liz told me about friends and colleagues around the world she has spoken to subsequently, as the pandemic has spread. She mentions her family and friends in the US in the piece. Fortunately, they are all fine and fairly confident that they had Covid, but due to lack of testing they do not know. They express tell-tale signs of shock, Liz observes, such as making energetic reactions and responses to challenges, trying to fix things, save the day, and work it all out. She added:

I personally wanted to appeal to them, and defend myself, in terms of moving more slowly and taking things easy. Catching me at this confused international moment, the article reflects on my experience with Covid as part of a broader experience of social crisis in Hong Kong, also suggesting the need for more international awareness of our connectedness. As these crises impact us all, even if we are not personally affected, understanding crisis and contingency requires new ways of thinking about social relationships and civic engagement.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, there have been very few new cases in the past few months which means that as socialising ceases to be a taboo, the protests are back. Liz worries that political instability will be a key feature of the ‘new normal’ going forward, for Hong Kong and for the UK, US, and other societies around the globe. This is being overlooked, I reflect afterwards, amidst all the concern for ‘listening to the science’ by the dominant, but inherently unstable, policy discourse.


To sign up for the School of Education virtual doctoral conference (5-6 June) and see Liz’s keynote, please see this Eventbrite page.

Liz’s keynote: “Ignoring History and Facts: The Ongoing Politicisation of Hong Kong Education”

Summary: Over the last tumultuous decade in Hong Kong, the topic of education has been in the front and centre stage of controversy and media coverage. As youth in secondary schools led the Umbrella Movement (2014-2015), while universities became battle grounds of the more recent anti-extradition protests (starting in 2019), popular discourse by politicians and others in media blamed the education system, anti-Mainland educators, and Liberal Studies, for radicalising and liberalising youth. While this message is spread time and again, it puts educators in a nearly impossible position. And it flies in the face of best evidence, based on academic research, about education’s role, historically and today, in Hong Kong.

In this lecture, Jackson will discuss her experiences of investigating Hong Kong education at multiple levels in relation to its civic and politicising influence. This includes discrete studies of the history of civic education in Hong Kong, student experiences with the Umbrella Movement, and research on the nature of the social studies curriculum in Hong Kong, including Liberal Studies. Offering a historical overview of this topic, Jackson also reflects on the challenges of doing research in a politicised climate. This lecture thus aims to offer both an academic analysis of political and civic education in Hong Kong, in relation to civic engagement—as well as personal reflections and insights, on the role of academic researchers to study important social events, thorns and all.

About Liz Jackson: Liz Jackson is currently an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Hong Kong and Director of its Comparative Education Research Centre. President of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia, one of the largest and most international academic associations of philosophy of education, Liz has published over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and books in the areas of philosophy of education, global studies in education, and multicultural and civic education. Her fourth book, Protesting Education and Identity in Hong Kong, will be based on her work over the last 8 years studying curriculum and youth civic engagement in Hong Kong. In September 2020, Liz will be taking up a new role as a Professor of Education at the prestigious Education University of Hong Kong.

Learning Under Lockdown: Rwanda

From the 13th of March, the Rwandan government has suspended all institutions where people gather in large groups: as with many other nations around the world, this is a core precaution to stop the spread of COVID-19. Rwanda was the first sub-Saharan nation to mandate a full lock-down, with borders closed to anyone except Rwandans returning home. Because of quick action, the nation has managed to limit the spread with no deaths to date. Medical officers report that the existing protective equipment and ventilators are sufficient for the time being, but medical facilities would be stretched to a breaking point if the caseload were to accelerate. President Paul Kagame has warned of the long-term impact that the virus will have on the African economy and suggested $100 billion as the figure required to prevent mass deprivation.

In this blog, Leanne Cameron interviews two Rwandan teachers, Cleophace Nzabagerageza and Laurien Ikuzwe. They comment on changes at their respective institutions and those that have occurred throughout Rwanda since the lockdown.

LC: How are you feeling about everything that is happening? Are you staying busy?

Cleophace: Physically I am feeling well. And in this lockdown period every day I take approximately four hours to read different resources about the subjects that I teach (English, Kinyarwanda, and ICT); I look at books and materials from the internet to try and improve my understanding. But I am worried about when this pandemic will stop so that we can go back to school. Due to the speed and the number of people who are sick from or spreading COVID-19, different counties have taken measures to wipe it out, so I am concerned for people who are suffering. But about my career as a teacher I am worried whether the students will forget things that they have studied which would require me to begin from basics. Nobody knows when the lockdown will end and we will return to normal.


Cleophace delivering a motivational speech at his school pre-COVID

Laurien: This COVID-19 period has been a time of reflection to me about my profession. I’ve been reflecting on my work as a teacher, asking myself; why I do what I do? What kind of a teacher was I? What kind of a teacher I want to be? How does my teaching matter in the lives of my kids and the community?

In this period, I see the power of effectively-shared knowledge. My prior teaching was mainly philosophic and followed these steps: acquisition, understanding, application and becoming. But as we have found ourselves in this trying situation, I went quickly to check on my students (especially those who are my Facebook friends) and asking them how they are coping with the situation. I realized the power of connection and see how my job has impacted my students in many ways. Considering what I see around me, I think it gives me opportunity for understanding social cohesion and what life means in a community. I am learning that life is about understanding one another and seeing that life is relative. Whatever is happening to one might happen to another. Thus, it reminds me to dive into how we should build a common life together.

LC: Tell me about your students. How are they coping with the lockdown?

Cleophace: My school is a private technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institution working under the control of Rwanda Polytechnic with the Workplace Development Authority at the head head. It is a coed school with male and female students from both local and urban areas in attendance; my students are 15 to 19 years old. They are working towards a TVET certificate of completion in the trades of  Motor Vehicle Mechanics and Tailoring. I talk to my students regularly through social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook, but we also talk on the phone and email as well. They tell me how they feel; many are scared and have lost the hope about when the pandemic will stop to let them go back for their studies.

Laurien: I teach student in Grades 10-12 at a government-aided boarding secondary school. Their ages vary from 15 to 22 and they come from all across the country: from cities, suburbs, and countryside. They all are in scientific studies (STEM), and I teach them English for communication. They have all been sent home.

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Laurien at work

LC: Can you talk a little about the situation for primary-aged students? 

Cleophace: Our government has initiated a media programme of teaching via television and radio called Building Learning Foundations Radio and Television Programme; it is delivered in partnership with UKAid. The subjects that are delivered in this radio and television program are examinable in national examinations from lower primary to advanced secondary. For primary students, the subjects of Kinyarwanda, English and Maths* are delivered. For lower secondly, students can learn English, Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Kinyarwanda. For upper secondary, most of the schools use their websites where they post lessons and assignments. The Ministry of Education has also strengthened the program of e-learning so the students can find different resources to help them keep the ‘mood’ of education and learning. Universities are also using e-learning platforms to keep students connected.

But access to the internet and even to power is still a big problem for many Rwandans, especially in the countryside. Many students don’t have a personal computer or smartphone to even access the internet this is a problem especially for students who are in universities. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education have assured those students who aren’t able to follow either radio or e-learning programs that they will go on from where they stopped when schools start again. Further, to facilitate even those students who cannot easily find internet, smart phones and computer, the Rwanda Education Board has initiated a toll free line of *134# where they find some questions to test their knowledge. So the use of those programmes is to keep their mind sharp and occupied but not to replace the classroom.

LC: Do you think your approach to teaching will change in the future due to this period of lockdown? 

Laurien: When it comes to the approach to teaching English language after COVID-19 period, I absolutely think that I will change somewhat due to the lock down. I will adapt to new approaches because it is the first time in my life (maybe for many people) to experience a global and yet local lockdown, I realised education has a reason to be much more contextualized to the real life situation. There are a lot of things to consider in English language teaching (ELT). For instance, we are likely to be persuaded to integrate technology and to use all available digital devices in ELT because the world is becoming more digitized; many jobs from different domains of life have been saved by working at home during COVID-19 due to the support of the internet. For instance, many schools were forced to shift their schooling activities to e-learning, though it has been tough for many. I believe that everything started like this and there is hope that learning and work will continue to be customized.

Cleophace: With this lockdown period, I have enough time to think and reflect about the content that I will deliver whenever we will go back to school. I am preparing and writing clear and relevant notes for content delivery. This will help me to change my teaching style since notes will be prepared in advance; I will be able to engage students in more hands-on learning. I know I will also need to think about different learning theories and try to individualise my teaching strategies.

LC: Do you think this will influence what English language you teach in the future? More vocabulary about viruses and pandemics, maybe?

Laurien: Yes! Now, I think some language items will be added in my ELT: medical vocabulary, and vocabulary for talking about pandemics and epidemics, as you have mentioned. I will also add more work on technology and other necessary language commands.

Cleophace: When we prepare for classes, we go through the line of curriculum that the Ministry of Education has established. But illustrations, examples and explanation together with cross cutting issues are adapted depending on the situation. This means that my teaching will be led by the moral lessons left by this COVID-19 and some unpopular vocabulary items will be retained, and vocabulary around pandemic, lockdown, confinement, outbreak, curfew, etc. will be integrated in the courses that I deliver.


*English, mathematics, and all other subjects apart from Kinyarwanda are taught in English for the primary level.


Aprendizaje Bajo Cuarantena

Una entrevista entre Julia Paulson de CIRE y Arturo Charria Hernández, Secretario de Educación Municipal de la ciudad de Cúcuta Norte de Santander, Colombia. La entrevista se enfoque en como Arturo y sus colegas están respondiendo a Covid-19. Cúcuta tiene población de mas de 700,000 personas y se ubica en una región que enfrenta retos sociales y educativas desde antes de la crisis de coronavirus. Exploramos también como la emergencia de covid-19 abre preguntas y permite reimaginar la educación y su rol en la transformación social.

The English translation of this blog is available here


Foto: Arturo Charria Hernández

JP: ¿Cúcuta  tuvo retos educativos antes de que llego el coronavirus – podrías pintarnos una foto de la zona y la situación educativa?

ACH: Antes de la llegada del coronavirus teníamos retos de carácter institucional como ausencia de docentes, que son adjudicados desde el Ministerio de Educación Nacional. Esto se da por aumento acelerado de matrícula producto de la migración venezolana y estudiantes desplazados del conflicto armado. Adicionalmente, estas poblaciones se concentran en zonas donde no hay mucha infraestructura educativa (colegios) generando desescolarización.

Otro reto es que, aunque la educación es pública, muchos de los servicios se contratan año a año y no se dejaron contratados. Esto implica que algunos servicios como transporte, conectividad o docentes de apoyo en discapacidad no comienzan al tiempo que el inicio de clases. Esto aumenta la brecha en la calidad educativa y en los derechos de los estudiantes.

JP: Y con la llegada de coronavirus, que ha cambiado?

ACH: Ha reflejado retos muy grandes en relación con las condiciones en que viven los estudiantes, porque no sólo no tienen dispositivos tecnológicos apropiados o conectividad, sino espacios físicos para realizar sus actividades. Muchos estudiantes viven en hogares en donde tener una silla y una mesa para hacer la tarea es un lujo con el que no cuentan.

El coronavirus también evidencia la dificultad que tienen docentes para reinventarse en el uso de nuevas tecnologías y ajustarse a la necesidad que vive el sistema educativo. Esto ha permitido importantes discusiones de fondo que antes no se daban: pertinencia de ciertos contenidos, el currículo, la forma en que se evalúa y, especialmente, el valor de los afectivo en la educación.

JP: Como tomaste la decisión de cerrar los colegios y cuáles son las preocupaciones principales que la decisión abre para ti?

ACH: La tranquilidad que debían tener estudiantes, padres de familia y comunidad educativa en general. No teníamos condiciones apropiadas para garantizar la salubridad y eso implica ser prudentes. Era una decisión que debía tomarse a nivel nacional, pero no había línea directa, la tomamos un día antes que el gobierno nacional y creo que eso ayudó a acelerar la decisión desde el ejecutivo.

JP: En Cúcuta , la educación sigue en cuales formas bajo cuarentena? Que están haciendo tu y colegas en la SED, maestros y maestras y familias para crear oportunidades de aprendizaje?

ACH: En  Cúcuta  sigue de manera flexible y en casa. Algunos usan plataformas de las páginas de los colegios, otros usan redes sociales (WhatsApp y Facebook) para el intercambio de información y acompañamiento en tiempo real. También se envía material impreso como guías de autoaprendizaje para quienes tienen dificultades de conectividad. Hemos sacado unas directrices muy claras desde la Secretaría de Educación Municipal de Cúcuta en donde establecemos que lo importante en este momento es el ser y no solo el conocer. Estas orientaciones reflexionan sobre el principio pedagógico de la evaluación en estos tiempos difíciles. Y también orientamos sobre el papel de los padres de familia en este momento que deben estar presente, sin reemplazar totalmente a los docentes. Sabemos que en estos momentos la educación no puede ser una carga emocional para las familias, porque eso puede generar violencia intrafamiliar, depresión, estrés e incluso deserción escolar.

JP: Tus pensamientos sobre la educación y tus prioridades para la educación han cambiado en los recientes semanas y días? Como y porque?

ACH: Definitivamente. Nos ha hecho más humanos. Hemos entendido como nunca la importancia de trabajar lo emocional y lo afectivo, de cuidarnos. Pero también acelerar discusiones de fondo del sistema educativo. ¿De qué sirven tantos temas que ven los estudiantes en sus clases? Las discusiones sobre lo curricular y la evaluación ganan espacios que antes no tenían. Es una oportunidad para dar grandes transformaciones sobre el sentido ético de la educación y sobre lo que significa la escuela en la relación con la vida de una sociedad.

JP: Como te sientes como educador? Encuentras esperanza en algunas lugares o fuentes? Como enfrentas sentimientos de desesperanza?

ACH: Encuentro mucha esperanza. Hay profesores y directivos docentes haciendo cosas maravillosas. Todos nos estamos reinventando para reencontrarnos con los esencial. Cuando se asoma la desesperanza, siempre recuerdo las palabras que me dijo mi esposa un día que fue muy duro: “Esto también pasará”.

Lector, si eres educador o alumn/a y quieres compartir tus experiencias del aprendizaje bajo cuarentena en este blog, por favor contacte 


Learning Under Lockdown: Colombia

This blog post features an interview between CIRE’s Julia Paulson and Arturo Charria Hernández, Municipal Education Secretary in the city of Cúcuta, Colombia. The interview focuses on how Arturo and his colleagues are approaching the educational response to Covid-19 in Cúcuta. The city of over 700,000 people is located in a region which was experiencing considerable social and educational challenges prior to the pandemic. Arturo also discusses if and how the emergency response to the pandemic is raising questions and opening spaces to reimagine education.

La versión del blog en español está aquí.


Arturo Charria Hernández


JP: Cúcuta was facing educational challenges prior to the arrival of coronavirus – can you paint us picture of the region and its educational situation?

ACH: Before the arrival of coronavirus, we had institutional problems like a lack of teachers, all of whom are assigned to us by the National Ministry of Education. Our lack of teachers is due to a steep increase in enrolments since we have migrants students arriving in the department from Venezuela, as well as Colombian students arriving due to displacement related to armed conflict. Additionally, these students tend to be concentrated in zones lacking educational infrastructure (schools), which leads to higher numbers of children out of school.

Another challenge is that, although education is public, many of our services are contracted annually and contracts are often delayed. This means that some services like school transport, internet connectivity, o learning support assistants for students with additional needs do not start on time and classes begin without them. This increases inequities in the quality of education and affects the rights of children to receive an education.

JP: What has changed thanks to coronavirus?

ACH: Coronavirus reflects the very challenging conditions that our students live with. It isn’t only that they don’t have access to appropriate technologies or the internet, it is also that they don’t have adequate physical space to carry on with their learning. Many students live in homes where having a table and chair on which to do their schoolwork is a luxury that they don’t have.

Coronavirus also highlights the difficulties that teachers have in suddenly needing to reinvent themselves by using new technologies and adapting to the new needs that the education system presents. This has opened space for important new discussions about issues that weren’t being discussed before, including around educational content, the curriculum, the ways in which learning is evaluated, and, especially, around the value of emotion and care in education.

JP: How did you make the decision to close schools in Cúcuta  and what concerns did the decision open for you?

ACH: We made the decision based on the wellbeing that students, parents and carers, and the educational community in general should have. We didn’t have the appropriate conditions to guarantee people’s health and this implies being prudent. Closing schools was a decision that should have been taken at a national level, but there wasn’t a direct line. We took the decision a day before the national government and I think that this helped to accelerate the decision from the executive.

JP: In what ways does education continue under lockdown in Cúcuta ? What are you and your colleagues in the Education Secretariat, teachers and families doing to ensure that learning continues?

ACH: Education is continuing in a flexible way in homes. Some are using the platforms of school’s websites, others use social media (Facebook and Whatsapp) to share information and support students in real time. We’re also sending printed material guides for independent learning to support those who have difficulties with internet connectivity.

We’ve sent very clear guidance from the Municipal Education Secretariat in which we highlight what is important at this time: that the student as a person rather than the sum of their knowledge. This guidance reflects on the pedagogical principals of evaluation in these difficult times. We also provide guidance on the role of parents, who should be present without totally replacing teachers. We know that at this time, education can’t be an emotional weight for families because this could generate intrafamily violence, depression, stress and even school dropout.

JP: Have your thoughts about the purposes of and priorities for education changed in recent weeks and months? How and why?

ACH: Definitely. These weeks have made us more human. We’ve understood more than ever the importance of working on the emotional and affective, of caring for ourselves. But, we’ve also accelerated fundamental discussions about the educational systems. What is the purpose of so many themes that students cover in their classes? The discussions about the curriculum and assessment are gaining traction that they didn’t have before. This is an opportunity for major transformations around the ethical purposes of education and about what schools signify in the relation to the wider life of a society.

JP: How do you feel as an educator? Where are you finding hope and what do you do when you encounter despair?

ACH: I find a lot of hope. There are teachers and principals who are doing marvelous things. We are all reinventing ourselves to rediscover what is essential. When I do meet despair, I always remember what my wife told on a day that was very hard: ‘this too shall pass’.

Reader, if you are an educator or student and would like to share your experiences learning under lockdown on a CIRE blog, please contact:

Quality of education in Pakistan may further deteriorate through online learning

By Tania Saeed

This piece originally appeared on Naya Daur.  


The response of higher educational institutions in their urgency to transition into the virtual world of teaching during this pandemic on the basis of ensuring that “learning” is not disrupted with the closure of colleges and universities till May 31 exposes the irrelevance of student and teacher experiences in the learning process. The emphasis is essentially on delivery; we need to deliver education to our students, fulfil the requirements of the academic year or semester so that the student does not lose out, thereby fulfilling our duties as providers of education. What is completely lost in this scenario is the reality of a pandemic and its impact on the student and the teacher– not just the physical, emotional, or psychological trauma that comes from members of a family, or neighbours falling sick, but of livelihoods being disrupted as businesses close down, and workers across the country lose their jobs, theirs and their families only means of survival. Students may be taking care of family members, living in precarious conditions, suffering from hunger or living in abusive homes, or even worried about loved ones working in hospitals and clinics. It is in this context that we want to ensure that “learning” as delivered through our educational institutions is not disrupted, where students learn online, and teachers (who may be surviving in similar circumstances) transition into the virtual world for which they have limited training, all the while living through this pandemic.

In the past two weeks a lot has been written on both the need and the limitation of online/virtual/remote teaching in Pakistan. The uncertainty of this pandemic with no end in sight has resulted in educational institutions exploring alternative methods of education, where online teaching seems to be the most viable option. Universities, mostly private that are well resourced are already exploring innovative ways of delivering education during this pandemic. Public sector universities are equally encouraging online classes to ensure the semester continues despite this disruption. The limitation that has rightly been highlighted is one of infrastructure: this ranges from internet access, as evident in the recent protests by students in Wana, to basic issue of electricity and power cuts; lack of trained teachers who themselves may struggle with access to the internet, and the danger of quality (already a problem in the education sector in Pakistan) further deteriorating through online education. The examples shared under the campaign #BoycottOnlineClasses on social media by students and teachers shows the extent of the problem, where the rush in ensuring education is not disrupted seems to be at the expense of students and teachers, rather than for them. The fact that the government has given the option of closing universities till May 31 should be seen as an opportunity to develop a Plan B through collaboration with students and teachers, rather than forcing online education that further compromises quality.

The uncertainty of the pandemic has necessitated the need to consider alternative ways of education delivery, but these cannot be decided through a top-down bureaucratic mechanism when the most integral players in this system are the students and the teachers. Delivery of education is irrelevant if it does not ensure quality learning. In such a context, student unions, and teacher unions could have been a useful source of collaboration. However, organizations such as the Progressive Students Collective, and the Professors and Lecturers Association for different provinces can provide important points of correspondence. The closure of educational institutions can be an opportunity for universities to evaluate the needs of their students, using empirical data from admission records, and consulting student and teacher organizations to explore the kind of obstacles that exist on the ground amongst their diverse student body and teachers, and the ways in which these obstacles can be overcome. All of this requires communication and collaboration with teachers and students.

Furthermore, examples of students mobilizing and driving relief efforts in their communities have been widespread; this could provide an important point of introspection for educational institutions, where such acts of solidarity can become an important part of the learning curriculum that goes beyond a textbook and a classroom. Innovation during times of crisis in education is not just about technology in the way it is being approached right now, but also introspection related to knowledge, the relevance of the learning experience for the everyday realities of students and teachers. As we think of alternatives, we need to re-evaluate what we consider learning, especially during a pandemic where that textbook knowledge seems to be increasingly irrelevant.

There is the added importance of recognizing gendered educational inequalities that exist within the household. The triple burden on women will be exacerbated for female teachers and students, where their access to teaching and learning will further be compromised as they take on the added responsibility of household and care work, while expecting to teach and attend classes at home. Further problematic is the assumption that home life will be conducive to learning, overlooking the kind of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse that may exist inside homes, where for many students and teachers campuses were safer options than their homes.

Rushing into an online mode of teaching will most certainly exacerbate educational inequalities as they exist in Pakistan today. While it is important to recognize the uncertainty related to COVID-19 and the need for a Plan B in education if educational institutions remain closed, that Plan B can only be successful if the existing reality of students and teachers is taken into account. There is a need to recognize the physical, emotional and psychological toll of the existing pandemic on teachers and students. Disruption to “learning” during a pandemic is only natural, but to force some form of artificial continuity in the name of “learning” is nothing more than a façade if it does not take into account the students and teachers that are central to the education process. If the rush towards online teaching is causing more stress and frustration for teachers and students during a pandemic, educational institutions, both public and private, must take the time given to them by the government that closed down universities till May 31 to better plan in collaboration with their teachers and students, instead of becoming a source of undue stress in the midst of a pandemic.

Tania Saeed is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at LUMS, a member of the Progressive Academics Collective (PAC), Lahore, and the co-author of Youth and the National Narrative. Education, Terrorism and the Security State in Pakistan (Bloomsbury, 2020). You may find her on Twitter @taniasaeed.



Isolated – but together: Discussing the doctoral experience during COVID-19

By Leanne Cameron

Doctoral studies are, by definition, a solitary activity: the research is your own. Even for doctoral student researchers in education who look at classrooms, school systems, and teacher groups, the often chaotic whirl of data collection is followed by a period of solitary analysis and write-up. In the past month, though, that isolation has become nationally mandated in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, and doctoral researchers must abandon even collective workspaces to self-isolate within their homes. A Nature study (Woolston, 2019) of 6,300 PGTs across the world found that a third have sought help for anxiety or depression, and the two most-cited worries are uncertainties about job prospects and work-life balance. COVID-19 adds another layer of uncertainty, and for now, work and (an isolated) life co-exist under the same roof.

Fourteen doctoral researchers from across the School of Education programmes in Bristol and Hong Kong met for a Zoom discussion organised by CIRE this past Friday. The conversation focused on the intersection of challenges – the virus, recent faculty strikes, and ongoing political tensions – that have shaped their academic work during this school year. We compared virus lockdown procedures: the two Hong Kong researchers present reported that more strict guidelines had just been issued, but until that point, restaurants and cafes had limited parties to four at a table and police checkpoints were in effect. Bristol researchers conveyed our situation in which everything except supermarkets and pharmacies were shut down, with one outdoor exercise period allowed per day. Or, as Zibah so poetically put it, “exercise or extra fries!”

There was a point of immediate agreement: the lockdown is not some form of vacation or writing retreat. The “uncertainty” already associated with the doctoral journey is further compounded by near-daily changes to national guidelines and virus infection rates; international doctoral researchers specially spoke of keeping an eye on the UK situation along with the unfolding situation in their home nations. Shimmi reported her worries about her home country, Maldives, which has managed to contain the virus but is beginning to suffer from the worldwide shutdown: the nation receives almost all food products from outside of the islands. India and other key trade partners have shut down shipping and transit in their own efforts to fight the spread. Further, with Ramadan coming in the next month, she wonders if the desire to participate in religious rites and gatherings will counteract isolation protocols. Together, the mental strain of uncertainty and worry for family members serve to impede the sort of “deep think” required for doctoral-level work.

Like workers across the world, researchers who are also parents must juggle their work with their childcare duties. Sian made it halfway through a self-introduction when her sweet, precocious toddler climbed into her lap and announced that she 1) has chickenpox, 2) just got a new kitchen, and 3) was attending (until this week) a new preschool: “Half a sentence and I get interrupted.” The other women with children in the group agreed; for Jill, being at home with her children and trying to keep them focused on their schoolwork means that “it’s difficult to even think about my thesis at the moment.” Cecile agreed that, even with the shift to online-based classes and meetings, “I can’t really do anything with kids in the house.” This was a common theme especially for parent-researchers who are the sole adult in flat.

A Bristol-based researcher, Martin, got home from fieldwork just in time. He had been working in Ethiopia, collecting data for his work on refugees and policy when the WHO issued the pandemic declaration and nations began to lockdown. A day after he booked flights to return home early, he got a flurry of emails from his funder telling him to return to the UK. “It was lucky because the night that I flew out, [Ethiopian Airlines] cancelled flights to thirty countries.” He was able to set up interviews with stakeholders and policymakers who could communicate online; for refugee participants, this was less of a possibility and thus the data collected will probably alter his outcomes. Other researchers worried about extensions for funding and thesis submission, and it is our hope that the university puts student well-being first and allows more time and funding for researchers trying to work through this difficult period.

With all of this uncertainty, there were bright spots. A discussion like this managed to connect Bristol and Hong Kong researchers, allowing for interaction that often feels impossible or complicated due to packed workday schedules and time differences. We agreed to continue weekly meetings during the crisis, to both discuss our frustrations and have conversation about anything besides COVID-19 and the thesis. But most importantly, the fourteen of us were able to remind each other to be gracious to ourselves and those around us and allow ourselves time to care for day-to-day needs rather than produce an opus of a thesis – for now.


Woolston, C. (2019). PhDs: The torturous truth. Nature575, 403-406. doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7




IDCRE Students’ Conference

Grace Davies, our Masters student reflects on the International Development and Comparative Research in Education (IDCRE) student conference held in December.

Conference participants presenting a poster

Education and technology

The day started with two talks based on the idea of technology and how this will shape the future of education. Firstly, two students from our cohort Emma and Sherry gave a presentation on the application of education in remote areas of China. The talk focused on how mass migration from rural areas to cities in China has resulted in extremely low pupil numbers in rural schools and the benefit of utilizing technology to tackle this. The talk primarily focused on how internet platforms can be used for online and interactive lessons – which enable students in rural areas to access far more classes.

 The second talk in the technology section of the conference was given by Professor Jun Zhao, a Chinese Professor in Northeastern University, Shenyang, China. We were very grateful to have an international perspective into the role of big data and the recent unprecedented changes to privacy as a result, which certainly holds many implications for education.

Our varied educational experiences

As a cohort we are extremely privileged that many of us are international students, this has enabled us to gather a wide range of perspectives on educational futures outside of the UK. To hone in on this theme two students volunteered to give presentations on their own home countries current education situation. Firstly, a presentation by Muassua David ‘The Structure of Educational Opportunities in Mozambique: Who fails, who succeeds?’ Muassua provided a brilliant and personalized overview of the history of education in Mozambique and the challenges faced within inequalities between states. Two key challenges for the future were highlighted; reducing inequality between states and lack of migration of graduates to rural communities. Secondly, Mawada Ahmed gave an enlightening talk on ‘Sudan’s Education Policy Reform: Revolution and New Agendas.’ The talk focused on the impact of the most recent revolution in Sudan and how that might shape Sudan’s educational future based on lessons learned and changes made in previous reforms. Mawada examined the Sustainable Development Goal 4 and how there is very little data for Sudan. Mawada also shared a video created by Unicef to encourage girls in education and acknowledged the lack of awareness it shows to Sudan’s history of gender equality and the wide range of achievement made by women.

Muassua David presenting his research in Mozambique

Imagining educational futures 

After a morning full of great discussion we broke off for lunch, where yet more discussion among peers could occur. During the lunch break we were able to look at posters created by masters and PhD students. After this break we were separated into two groups dependent on our interest. I joined some of my peers in a workshop on alternative education, where we discussed the pros and cons of different education styles. The workshop raised some key questions surrounding whether we should mix age groups of children and how the future of education might look if we were to adopt more alternative schooling methods. Alternatively, the other half of the conference attended a talk given by Arshia Jain, Shamiso Mahari, Driti Prasad from our IDCRE cohort titled ‘Pre-Colonial Education: Using the Past to Understand the Future.’ The talk focused on how we can learn from the past to understand the future of education and how there is value in learning from our experiences within education.  The talk took two case studies one of the Khoi-San group in Africa, which was based on environmental education, and the gurukul system in India based on community learning and how we could learn from parts of these experiences.

Group discussions

Decolonizing the education system

The conference now gathered together for a discussion panel from three of our visiting speakers; with Dr Foluke Adebise, Professor Leon Tikly and Aisha Thomas, chaired by our fellow student Ugbaad Aidid. The panel focused on how we can decolonize the curriculum. The discussion was extremely insightful and opened many avenues for debate and mixed perspectives from our three guest speakers and the conference audience. One key point raised is the emphasis on cultural capital that needs to be made within the curriculum and how this can sometimes become a tick box exercise. It was unanimously agreed among the panel that multicultural education is more important than this and should become a part of everyday dialogue within schools. The role of cultural capital in creating hierarchical culture was also acknowledged and how some cultural backgrounds within education are seen as more valuable.


Professor Carol A. Taylor giving her keynote

This brings us to the keynote speaker, Professor Carol A. Taylor, whose presentation was titled; “Using New Material Feminism: Rethinking what Matters in Higher Education.” The talk focuses on “the challenges of new material feminism and the possibilities it opens for doing higher education research differently.” (C A. Taylor,2019). We were extremely grateful to have Professor Taylor share her expertise with us and she gave an enlightening talk on her concept of ‘edu-crafting’ (Taylor, 2016, 2018) and the role of feminism in mixed methodologies. Taylor also illuminated on classroom practices and how they perpetuate gender roles and our position as educators to tackle this. The talk ended with the question of how we could incorporate feminism into our own research practice and work whether that be in classrooms or within policy. In terms of the future of education what was apparent from this talk is the need to ask more questions regarding gendered notions within education practice and research.

Alternative education models

The final talk of the day came all the way from Canada with the second of our international speakers Matt Hern who discussed youth empowerment in alternative education and how alternative education can be used as a method to tackle inequality. This presentation linked in well with the alternative education workshop and allowed more conversation to develop around a differing models of educational futures and the increasing need for more schooling options to meet the needs of today’s society.  Hern ended his talk with the poignant question: “What would an institution look like if students felt that what they thought was important?” Something I felt left us all with something to consider in terms of our own future in education and working within this sector.

Wrap up

The day was a huge success and enabled us to reflect upon our place within education and how education might look in years to come. Hosting this conference provided us with ample opportunity for collaboration and the day really showcased the hard work of every student who took part. Speaking on behalf of myself and other students from my cohort the experience was invaluable, and we are very proud of the discussions and collaborations generated as a result of the day. The objective for the conference was; “to facilitate interactive discussion and debate around our chosen topics, enabling students and academics to share their expertise and network with those both within and outside the University.” I believe the conference showcased just this.


 I would like to personally thank everyone who attended and took part in the day and make special acknowledgement to certain individuals for their contributions. Firstly to all our visiting speakers: Professor Jun Zhao, Dr. Foluke Adebise, Professor Leon Tikly,  Aisha Thomas, Professor Carol Taylor and Matt Hern. Secondly to all of our student speakers: Emily, Paloma, Emma, Sherry, Song, Muassua, Mawada, Arshia, Shamiso, Driti , Ugbaad and also a special thanks to Angelika who coordinated our key note speaker and many aspects of the day.  The photographs of the day were taken by Ali Ahmed and Yan Lee. Furthermore, we would all like to thank the Education department for funding the event and our lecturers, Laura Hankin, Julia Paulson and Rafael Mitchell.


J Muassua, B David and João Carlos Colaço, 2018. Estrutura de Opportunidades Educacionais em Moçambique. Publifix Editions: Maputo, Mozambique.

Taylor, C.A, 2013. ‘Objects bodies and space. Gender and embodied practices of mattering in the classroom.’ Gender and Education, 25 (6) 688-703.

Taylor, C.A and Gannon, S, 2018. ‘Doing time and motion diffractively: Academic life everywhere and all the time.’ Qualitative Studies in Education, 31 (6) 465-486.

UNESCO, 2019. Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Online) Available at :

Are we all invested in climate crisis? USS, Shell and us

Article written by: Dr. Angeline M. Barrett

Angeline M. Barrett is one of the CIRE staff on strike this week. In this article, she takes a closer look at how the USS pension is invested

This week, academic and some professional services staff at the University of Bristol will be on strike. The industrial action relates, amongst other demands, to the terms of our pension benefits and contributions. Bristol is the first UK University to declare a climate emergency and the School of Education has developed its own Climate Strategy. Yet, our pension fund, USS, holds substantial shares in the fossil fuel industry. Let us use the time on the picket lines to build a climate Ethics for USS campaign.

USS investments in fossil fuels

According to the USS 2019 annual report, 40.9% of the Pension fund’s £64.7 billion assets, what is known as its implemented portfolio, is invested in private equities (i.e. shares in private companies). Its website lists the top 100 equity investments (as of 31 March). Number one on the list is Royal Dutch Shell plc with equities valued at £538 million. Shell is the sixth largest extractor of fossil fuels in the world by volume. In total, I recognised eight of the listed companies as being in the business of exploration and extraction of fossil fuels:

  • Royal Dutch Shell plc
  • Glencore plc (coal mining)
  • Lundin Petroleum
  • Occidental Petroleum Corp.
  • Pioneer Natural Resources Co.
  • EOG Resources Co. (formerly part of Enron Oil and Gas)
  • Petroleo Brasileiro SA (known as Petrobas)
  • Lukoil PJSC ADR (A Russian multinational)
1 Breakdown of USS Retirement Income Builder as of 31 March 2019 (USS 2019a)

The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on the world’s largest corporate polluters. Shell and Petrobas both appear on the list of 20 firms, which between them have been calculated to have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere since 1965, according to research by the Climate Accountability Institute led by Heede (Taylor & Watts, 2019; Heede, 2019a). 1965 was taken as the start point because by then the oil giants already knew about that carbon emissions could lead to climate change (Bannerjee et al., 2016). When approached to respond to Heede’s research, Shell claimed:

“… we fully support the Paris agreement and the need for society to transition to a lower-carbon future. We have already invested billions of dollars in a range of low-carbon technologies, … . Addressing a challenge as big as climate change requires a truly collaborative, society-wide approach. We’re committed to playing our part, by addressing our own emissions and helping customers to reduce theirs.” (Taylor 2019).

Shell is investing in renewables. In 2018-19, it invested $1-$2billon on renewables, around  4-6% of its $25-$30bn annual investment (The Guardian, 2019). In this respect, the two European oil giants, Shell and BP are doing much more than US, Saudi, Russian and other oil companies (Watts, 2019). However, Shell is also planning to increase production of crude oil and gas by a colossal 38% between 2018 and 2030 (Watts, Ambrose and Vaugh 2019). Future plans include fracking for gas and oil in land belonging to the Mapuche indigenous people in the Neuquén province of Argentina (Bnamericas, 2019; The Guardian, 2019; Goñi, 2019). Local groups have complained about thousands of tonnes of toxic waste dumped on their land by Shell’s subcontractor, Treater Neuquén S.A. (Raine, 2019). Petrobas is not investing in renewables but claims that through the use of new carbon capture technologies, it can expand production with no change to its carbon footprint (Taylor 2019). Certainly, it is expanding production. This month it purchased exploration and production rights for two deep water oilfields off the coast of Argentina, opening the way for the world’s biggest expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration (Petrobas, 2019; The Guardian, 2019). Despite all the rhetoric around support for the Paris Climate Agreement, the rate at which oil and gas is pouring into global markets is accelerating not slowing. For Shell, Petrobas, Pioneer Natural Resources, EOG and Lukoil, exploration and exploitation of new oilfields is their main business activity.

Fossil fuel companies can present themselves as progressively green because of the way that responsibility for carbon emissions is accounted, including by the United Nations. Only the greenhouse gases produced in the process of extraction, refining and transportation are attributed to the oil companies. Like other fossil fuel companies, Shell and Petrobas accept no responsibility for the emissions produced when their customers burn the oil or gas they have extracted from the ground. By contrast, Heede’s research (2019a) attributes to the oil giants responsibility for all the carbon dioxide and methane associated with the gas and oil they extract, including that produced when it is burned by consumers.

It is disingenuous for Shell to point the finger at the rest of society. For decades the petroleum companies have spent millions on influencing public opinion and politicians. Shell is reported to be spending over £50 million per annum branding itself as a company that supports action against climate change (Laville, 2019a). A recently released report by Corporate Europe Observatory, Food & Water Europe, Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace claims that Shell spent €35.6 million between 2010 and 2018  just on lobbying EU officials (Laville, 2019b). State-owned Petrobas’ entanglements with Brazilian politicians is even more problematic. The company has been embroiled in political corruption scandals, involving two Brazilian presidents, Lula and Rousseff, as well as a number of other high-level politicians (Chapman, 2018). Last year, Petrobas settled a lawsuit with investors in the US by agreeing to pay-outs of £2.2 billion as recompense for profits illegally siphoned off through bribes and kickbacks.

Investor influence

The current climate crisis demands immediate and drastic action. The Guardian’s environmental editor, Jonathon Watts (2019) points out that this will not come about through an accumulation of individual consumer decisions but requires turning off the flow of fossil fuels at source by phasing out extraction. The argument goes that as long as fossil fuels continue to flow into global markets, carbon-dependent industries will continue to grow. Whilst as individuals, we can and should change our behaviour, the burden of responsibility does need to shift towards the companies, which for fifty years have profited enormously from fossil fuels, whilst in full knowledge of the potential impact on climate. As Naomi Klein observed, naming another oil giant:

A lot of environmentalist discourse has been about erasing responsibility: “We’re all in this together… We’re all equally responsible.” Well, no – you, me and Exxon (Mobil) are not all in this together. The idea we’re all guilty is demobilising because it prevents us directing our anger at the institutions most responsible. (Forrest, 2014)

Yet, when it comes to Royal Dutch Shell, it appears that we are all in it together not just through consuming fossil fuel consumption but in benefiting from the profits. Investors play a key role in enabling their business and companies are under obligation to generate and to pay dividends to shareholders. Shell, therefore, can only make a dramatic change in direction in its longstanding business model with support from shareholders. USS is probably the largest pension fund in the UK, in terms of assets, so its corporate influence is substantial, particularly within UK. USS claims leadership within the sector in respect to its response to climate change. So, how is USS using its influence as a shareholder?

USS summarises its overarching strategy as:

Using our scale and expertise to deliver secure futures for our members, support for universities and being a force for positive change in the UK and broader economy. (USS, 2019a: 9)

In an article (Russell, 2018) on fossil fuel divestment, the Head of Responsible Investment, explains that due to its legal responsibilities, the first part of this strategy has to take precedence over the second. Delivering secure futures for us, its members, trumps positive change. USS, Russell explains, has a legal obligation to deliver on its primary objective of delivering dividends on their investments to meet the defined benefits for members.  This we are told, rules out divesting for ethical reasons alone and requires the fund to maintain a “balanced portfolio” – presumably a balance between ethical and unethical investments. As an example of what this means in practice, Russell points to £800 million (1.2 % of its total assets) of renewable energy assets held by USS. USS has been proactive not only in securing but making it possible to hold these types of assets. It created and wholly owns as a subsidiary L1 Renewables, a platform from which it has loaned £500 million to fund renewable energy technology.

Investing in clean energy is just one half of the USS responsible investment strategy. The fund also seeks to use its stake in companies “to promote positive boardroom action on ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] and ethical issues” (Russell, 2018).  To exemplify this kind of action, this year’s annual report (USS 2019a) explains how USS collaborated with other pension funds to engage with Shell, leading to a commitment from the company to reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2050. This is presumably a 50% cut in the roughly 10% of emissions that come from the extraction, refining and transportation of oil and gas; a gain for the planet that will be dwarfed by the increase in emissions at the point of consumption associated with Shell’s planned 35% increase in output by the much earlier date of 2030.  

In another success story (USS, 2019b), we are told that a resolution they proposed to three UK-listed mining conglomerates (Glencore, Rio Tinto and Anglo-American) related to how they “were managing the transition to a 2 degree world”. These were, in each case, “supported by an overwhelmingly majority” of shareholders and board members. This exemplifies the risk management discourse, which typifies asset managers’ response to climate change:

As a long-term investor USS wants to be able to assess how companies are managing climate change and the risks it poses to their business. (USS, 2019b)

Risk management needs to be informed by data. So USS, also encourages companies to report on carbon emissions and their plans to respond to climate change.

What about us? What can we do?

USS’ climate change leadership represents a shift within but not a rejection of the neoliberal profit-led logic of capitalist global markets that has been key driver of climate crisis in the first place. The kind of logic that places the security of profits over ethics. The School of Education’s mission includes a commitment to promote social justice. The Centre for Comparative and International Research in Education is concerned with issues of social, environmental and epistemic justice in education. The part of the pension fund that is invested in the environmental destruction of Mapuche people’s land runs completely counter to the whole purpose and value-orientation of our professional work and research. The gains that USS and its collaborators have made in the Climate Agreement 100+ project arguably amount to little more than window-dressing, playing into Shell’s green-washing strategy. USS talks of managing the risk of ‘stranded assets’, but not the risks to lives and livelihoods associated with climate catastrophe. Stranding shale and deep-water reserves is precisely what we need to do fast. For humanity and the planet, they are not assets but threats to security.  The prospect of a near future in which carbon emissions from fossil fuels increase by 35% is one to fill us with dread and foreboding. Certainly, not one on which to place a bet. What logic can there be to betting on a future in which we have no wish to live, or to bequeath to our children?

So as we are members of USS and the money they invest is ours, what can we do? If you earn over £55,000 or pay top-ups on your benefits you can unilaterally withdraw the defined contribution part of your pension from fossil fuels, tobacco, the arms trade, gambling and pornography. Just log into ‘My USS’ and select the ‘Ethical Lifestyle’ option from the ‘Do it for me’ section (Jennings 2018). 

For the rest of us and the larger ‘defined benefit’ part of the pension, the only way to bring change is through collective action. USS has responded to such action in the past. The reason that USS is a national leader in responsible investment is because of the demands of its members.  USS first adopted a responsible investment policy 20 years ago following a two-year Ethics for USS campaign, involving university staff and students (Fair Pensions n.d.). In 2014, it published a detailed response to recommendations of a report by ShareAction on Ethical Investment because UCU demanded a response. Another Ethics for USS campaign ran from 2014 to 2016, focused on divesting from companies with any involvement in banned weapons (ShareAction 2016). USS participates in global investor initiatives in IIGCC and the Climate Action 100+. It has a large in-house responsible investment team. USS communicates its actions on climate change through its website because it knows its members care deeply about such matters, although much of the information is frustratingly vague. Our Union is represented by three appointees on its (entirely white) 12-member, although one is currently suspended after asking awkward questions around deficit calculations (UCU, 2019).

With greater levels of awareness of climate change and following University of Bristol’s declaration of a climate emergency, here and now seems an apt point to launch another Ethics for USS campaign with a focus on climate. Industrial action brings us together in different ways that can build solidarity. One of UCU’s planned actions is participation in the climate strike on Friday 29 November. So, let us use the next week to join up the dots between pension investments and climate change. Let us build a collective campaign to demand a broader, deeper, more robust responsible investment strategy. Let us tell USS that we appreciate their efforts over the last five years to constructively engage with companies such as Shell and Glencore but they do not go far enough. Over the next five years, the urgency of climate change requires complete divestment from all companies that persist in expanding production of oil, gas and coal. Let us insist that USS engages more closely with its members to explain and be accountable for their investment choices. Let us insist that they engage with the expertise of research institutes such as Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment. Let us through sustained collective campaigning attempt to break down the gulf in values between the investment sector, where unethical investments are justifiable, and the HE sector, where ethical scrutiny is unavoidable.

If anyone working for USS is reading this, what are your plans for Friday? Do pop down to a climate demonstration, it will be a great way to get to know us better.


Bannerjee, N., Cushman Jr., J.H., Hasemyer, D. and Song, L. (2016) CO2’s Role in Global Warming Has Been on the Oil Industry’s Radar Since the 1960s. Inside Climate News, 13 April 2016.

Bnamericas (2019) Neuquén and Shell review security in Sierras Blancas after shooting. Bnamericas, 11 June 2019.

Chapman, B. (2018) Petrobas agrees to pay $3bn to settle US lawsuit over corruption scandal. Independent, 3 January 2018.

FairPensions (n.d.) Our history.

Forrest, A. (2014) Naomi Klein: “A 3-day week will help to save life on Earth”. The Big Issue, 28 October 2014.

Goñi, U. (2019) Indigenous Mapuche pay high price for Argentina’s fracking dream. The Guardian, 14 October 2019.

Guardian, The (2019) What do we know about the top 20 global polluters? The Guardian, 9 October 2019.

Heede, R. (2019a) Carbon Majors: Update of Top Twenty companies 1965-2017. Press Release. Snowmass, Colorado: Climate Accountability Institute. 9 October 2019.

Jennings, N. (2018) Pensions: Invest in our future, not the past. Climate & Environment at Imperial, 3 September 2018.

Laville, S. (2019a) Top oil firms spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies, says report. The Guardian, 22 March 2019.

Laville, S. (2019b) Fossil fuel big five ‘spent €251m lobbying EU’ since 2010. The Guardian, 24 October 2019.

Petrobas (2019) We acquire Búzios and Itapu fields on the Transfer of Rights surplus bidding round. Petrobas, 6 November 2019.

Raine, J. (2019) Argentina: toxic waste from fracking in Patagonia. Latin American Bureau, 11 March 2019.

Russell, D. (2018) The Divestment Debate. London: University Superannuation Scheme.

ShareAction (2016) Ethics for USS. Campaign Briefing, November 2016.

Taylor, M. (2019) Climate emergency: what the oil, coal and gas giants say. The Guardian, 10 October 2019.

Taylor, M. & Watts, J. (2019) Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions. The Guardian, 9 October 2019.

UCU (2019) UCU comment on sacking of USS board member Jane Hutton. UCU news, 11 October 2019.

USS (2019a) Reports and accounts for year ended 31 March 2019. London: University Superannuation Scheme.

USS (2019b) Climate Change. London: University Superannuation Scheme.

Watts, J. (2019) Naming and shaming the polluters. The Guardian, Today in Focus Podcast. 18 October 2019. Watts, J., Ambrose, J. and Vaughan, A. (2019) Oil firms to pour extra 7m barrels per day into markets, data shows. The Guardian, 10 October 2019.