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17th May 2024

200 years of the University of Manchester… celebrating white male alumni

As the University of Manchester prepares its bicentenary celebrations, it’s time to address the less-celebrated alumni, and question why these individuals have received less attention
200 years of the University of Manchester… celebrating white male alumni
Credit: Miriam Alston @The Mancunion

As the University enters its third century, I thought this was the perfect time to write an article to celebrate the University of Manchester alumni. In an email sent to all students at the start of 2024, President and Vice-Chancellor Nancy Rothwell remarks the 200 years celebrations are for “everyone – staff, students, alumni,” a clear moment for us to look back on those that attended the University in the 200 years of its history. Rothwell stated that this was “a very special moment for us.”

However, as I began to research the most acclaimed and celebrated Manchester alumni, I came across an extensive list of white men. A long list appeared on my screen from comedians Jack Whitehall and Josh Widdicombe, to Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien, to Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch. Despite their admirable success, I couldn’t help notice the lack of diversity staring at me in the face. And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the majority of these big names attended some of Britain’s most prestigious private schools.

A top magazine on university education, The Times Higher Education, characterizes university alumni as “a benchmark of student success”: people students can look to envision a successful career beyond graduating. But how are students expected to aspire to the success of alumni when they are not represented by them?

This lack of representation reflects the lack of opportunities for female, gender diverse, Black, and global majority groups in the industries in which these alumni have claimed their fame: media, literature, theatre, cinema, music, comedy, engineering, and science (we all know Brian Cox is a beloved member of our Physics Department).

In spite of this white male-dominated index of people, let’s turn our attention to the some of the most successful, but less celebrated, alumni here at The University of Manchester, those who have marked their success in these industries who happen to not be white men.

Naomi Metzger (née Ogbeta)

Having studied Politics and Quantitative Methods at University, Metzger has journeyed to become seven-time triple jump British champion. She was an active member of the comedy society, making a name for herself as she juggled athletics, a politics degree, and improvisational comedy. While she may not be a household name, the 25-year-old is one of Britain’s most successful young athletes, rising above the little support her school years provided, to become an Olympian for Team GB.

Pam Gems

A feminist playwright best known for her 1978 musical play Piaf, Pam Gems studied psychology at the University of Manchester in the 1940s. Piaf is about the life and career of a French singer, and a tragic tale of the high price women must pay for love, compromising economic independence for romantic fulfilment. Gems became a pioneer in the theatre world, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and getting nominated for two Tony awards. She used her work to centre female and working-class experiences in a way that was unusual in the 1980s, debunking stereotypes and shifting attention to women’s struggles in the theatre industry.

George Obolo

Obolo is currently completing medical studies at the University of Manchester – so not yet an alumnus – but he undoubtedly deserves to be celebrated. Obolo’s interests have expanded far beyond the medical field as he co-founded The Black Excellence Network in April 2020, aiming to address racial disparities in UK higher education by providing mentoring and consultancy services to Black students.

Obolo already has an outstanding track record of success: from achieving Undergraduate of the Year 2023, to being named one of the Top 5 Future Leaders in the UK by Powerlist Magazine. He has even made his mark in the pinnacle of inspirational public speaking, as Obolo delivered a TED talk on ‘How to Make Real Change’ in 2022. All of these remarkable achievements, and he is yet to graduate!

Meera Syal

One of the most famous alumni in this list, Meera Syal is a hugely talented actor, writer, and journalist, who studied English and Drama at The University of Manchester. Having risen to prominence as one of the creators of Goodness Gracious Me in the late 1990s, she has now starred in some of Britain’s best blockbuster entertainment, playing genius roles in Richard Curtis’ homage to The Beatles, Yesterday, and the adorable world of Paddington 2.

In her acting and writing she explores the integration of British and South Asian culture, redefining what it means to be a British Indian woman through her drama and literature. By calling for more diversity and representation in TV as she won her Bafta award in 2023, she has changed the face of the British comedy industry.

Esme Dee Hand-Halford

After studying at Manchester, Hand-Halford has become lead vocalist and bassist of up-and-coming indie rock band The Orielles. She spent her time at University making music and touring, balancing this alongside the stresses of essays and exams. From Halifax, West Yorkshire, The Orielles describe themselves as having journeyed from “lo-fi DIY indie origins… to Stereolab and A Certain Ratio-inspired avant-pop”. Read The Mancunion’s very own live review of their debut at Night & Day Café if you want to know more.

Olive Morris

Morris was a Jamaican-born community activist in feminist and Black resistance movements in the 1970s. After studying Economics and Social Science at Manchester between 1975-1978, she worked with Black mothers in Moss Side to improve the provision of education of their children. She co-founded the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group which worked to tackle racism in state schooling and offered educational programmes to young Black mothers. Despite her tragic death at the young age of 27, she left a powerful legacy, inspiring countless Black activists.

What now?

The exclusion of these inspiring alumni from University records arises from a culmination of factors. Firstly, from entrenched, systemic issues in higher education, with a lack of opportunities for some, whilst historically, white, wealthy men have been welcomed with open arms. Secondly, where female and global majority groups have gained entry despite unequal opportunities, their remarkable success has been overlooked, if not denied, by universities and public consciousness. So, what can the University do to rectify this?

Diversifying the face of alumni – rather than just celebrating one type of face – is a must, in a movement to decolonise the curriculum. This must involve tackling systemic disparities in higher education, by actively diversifying the upcoming cohorts and providing more opportunities to underrepresented prospective students. To do so will be to set up a future generation of diverse alumni, fashioning a very different list to the one I found from my Google search.

As the University celebrates its 200th year, there must be a push to commemorate alumni that do not fit into the much-celebrated white male category. It is vital that the Manchester alumni selected as role models are representative of its diverse student body.

Miriam Alston

Miriam Alston

Deputy Lifestyle editor 2023-24

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