The University of Edinburgh’s website states, “From Nobel Laureates and Olympic Champions to space explorers and prime ministers, the University of Edinburgh has been influencing history since it opened the gates…in 1583.” Among its most notable alumni are the likes of Charles Darwin, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Chris Hoy, all of whom are undoubtedly important figures in their own right, and as such, the university has several portraits dedicated to them. However, questions have arisen from this as to whether these pictures of exclusively white, middle-class men present a true reflection of the university we see today.
For the academic year 2015/16, the university released statistics showing that 30 per cent of its students, were international, which far surpassed the 25 per cent of students who came from the UK. Included in this student survey was the fact that China held second position for the number of non-UK students at the university, at over 2,600. In terms of gender, the male to female ratio was recorded as being 40:60, with women dominating in both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. What this clearly shows is that both female and overseas students make up an essential part of the university’s student numbers, begging the question as to whether these Edinburgh University Students’ Association portraits are a real representation of the university currently, and if not, what can and should be done about it.
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge recently underwent transformations in light of this very issue, as both institutions decided to remove portraits of so-called ‘old, white men’ when students brought it to the faculties’ attention that these pictures misrepresented the essence of the university’s student body. As Dr. Lilia Giugni, a fellow at the University of Cambridge and the CEO and co-founder of GenPol, a group that advocates gender equality, says, “a young female undergrad, let alone a non-white or disabled one, [goes] every day into a dining hall packed with portraits of old, white, upper-class men, none of whom remotely looks like her (sic).”
Although her response is directed at collegiate universities, the same principles apply to our university. If students are constantly presented with images of rich white men, it is likely to make them question the extent to which they, as someone who does not fit into all, or indeed any, of these brackets, can truly see themselves as part of the university. Not only this, but for prospective students looking around the university, being constantly faced with rigid images of alumni that line the walls may lead them to feel disinclined to apply to the university, by being misled into believing these portraits represent the general student body and the ideals the university upholds. This is a particular shame when the statistics reveal quite the opposite, that the University of Edinburgh opens its doors to a cross-section of people of different races, nationalities and genders.
Nonetheless, this still leaves us with the question as to what should be done about the issue? Should we remove the portraits completely? Should they be replaced by images that reveal the diversity of students that attend? Or, as one student suggested to me, should we just graffiti over the images and start again? Whatever your views, it is clear that a change is in order, but how this happens is up to us.
Image: Nikita Jha