Coloniality and History at LSTM: Reflections and experiences of PGR Students

Blog 15 Sep 2021
Lent term students 1928

As part of the 2021 Postgraduate Research (PGR) Conference, the LSTM BAME Network and the Decolonising Education Working Group held a forum to engage in a conversation on how our PGR practices (education, research, publishing) build on or destabilise LSTM’s colonial legacy.

The history of LSTM’s education is closely entwined with the growth of the empire and the extractive nature of global health practices, which somehow paved the way for aspects of PGR education. There have clearly been changes since the ‘Lent term of 1928’ that was dominated by white males in white coats and suits (see picture above), and we now recognise the continuing need to examine our institution in the light of these histories and to consider how we can ensure that the school provides an equitable and inclusive environment for all staff and students. Subsequently, decolonising education is now pivotal to LSTM Educational Strategy, which is focused on equity and inclusion.

During the session, a series of questions were posed to participants for general comments, thoughts and reactions:

How have you experienced coloniality?

Experiences were shared by several participants, but the dominant feature was that those of non-white backgrounds tended to be or felt they were treated differently from their white counterparts. These experiences ranged from the process of applying to LSTM through to conducting and disseminating research.  In research settings, particularly in LMICs, where LSTM and other similar institutions work, there were reports of a perceived superiority associated with white skin colour, with those in contact with researchers assuming that ‘white is right’. Thus, black researchers face more resistance to their work, whereas white people are more often placed in the ‘saviour’ role.

What does ‘decolonising’ LSTM mean for you?

Participants agreed that before acting on decolonisation, there should be efforts to understand how coloniality defines global health research and global health education (to date).  Colonial influences were felt to resonate in the language that continues to be used, including ‘beneficiaries/donors’ and ‘field/centre’ (in relation to data collection for instance).  There were concerns raised about the use of the term BAME which implies “othering” of certain groups.  This lack of inclusion was also apparent during the admission process, giving some applicants a sense of not being fully part of LSTM, and thereby creating an insider/outsider notion. A widely noted example of a point which furthered a sense of exclusion from the institution was that of email addresses consisting only of strings of numbers. Whilst this is not an issue patterned solely by ‘race’, the practice of denying personalised email addresses to students – even those based at LSTM for their PhDs – was experienced by many as non-inclusive.

What are the key decolonising actions for LSTM PGR?

“Decolonisation is a slow and painful process, but we must have these difficult conversations. It took many years to colonise and likewise will take a long time to undo”

[Perspective from workshop attendee]

In conclusion, one consensus of the workshop was that exploring the ongoing legacies of colonialism and decolonial work is not just a ‘BAME issue’: it is for us all, as we are all implicated. It was agreed that we should push for change by continuing these conversations. Student voices need to be heard in as many ways as possible, for example in student blogs, and there needs to be an awareness of the breadth of experiences across the institution to generate a productive and inclusive discussion.

As an institution with roots in colonial structures, LSTM is also learning from about decolonising education from higher education establishments in the UK and abroad. Decolonisation at LSTM would needs to address the various (sometimes tacit) forms of institutional racism and colonial legacies., and it was recommended that we be accompanied in the decolonisation process by an external partner(s) to oversee and to offer support in such a process. Workshop participants noted that in most organisations, ‘decolonisation’ processes have been student led. In LSTM, a step forward has been the establishment of the BAME network and representatives and the Decolonising Working Group, but many in the workshop felt that, to achieve real change, transformative action is required. Such action, with student involvement throughout its design and implementation, requires bottom-up approaches. Student voices and perspectives could be included through focus groups – co-hosted with PGR students in different regions – and through additional creative approaches. It was agreed that this was the start of a potentially challenging but ultimately worthwhile journey.

We end this blog with a quote from one workshop participant: “Thought has no race or gender: you are either engaging your brain or not!”

We hope to have lots of ‘brain engagement’ from across LSTM staff and students, to contribute to the journey ahead.