Professor David Petley, University of Hull Vice-Chancellor


World Social Justice Day: overcoming barriers on campus, in our local community and around the world

For World Social Justice Day (Monday 20 February), Professor Dave Petley, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hull, reflects on how we are ‘overcoming barriers and unleashing opportunities for social justice’.

We are reminded, this World Social Justice Day, that fairness and equality aren’t guaranteed. Worldwide, poverty and inequality are rising, climate breakdown and armed conflict threaten insecurity and violence, and, at home, healthcare provision is struggling to keep pace with rising demand.

The UN’s 2023 World Social Justice Day theme is ‘Overcoming Barriers and Unleashing Opportunities for Social Justice’. ‘Overcoming barriers’ stands out in particular. Research can best impact the reality of people’s lives by crossing over barriers – between nations, between the local and global, and between root causes, present impacts, and looming crises.

This work starts at home. Recent research, led by our academics, looked into food insecurity in Hull. The Trussell Trust reports that it distributed 1.3 million food parcels in the UK between April and September 2022. What leads to food insecurity and how can it be mitigated? Our research aims to understand the blight of food poverty on families and, crucially, inform local organisations developing a three-year food poverty action plan which aims to make a concrete difference to families striving to get food on their plates.

New ideas

Research partnerships are also key to an innovative project from the British Science Association (BSA) that has recently announced that it will be funding seven more community projects in Hull as part of its Ideas Fund programme. The local projects aim to improve mental wellbeing across a broad range of communities – from children with visual impairments, families living with the impact of acquired brain injuries and those with lived experiences of addiction.

The projects will involve a knowledge exchange between University of Hull researchers and the community groups as part of the Ideas Fund, which is run by the BSA and funded by the Wellcome Trust. The Fund enables the UK public to work with University researchers to develop and try out ideas to improve mental wellbeing in their communities. Hull was one of four pilot areas in 2021 – and it is extremely heartening to see this new way of working evolve.

The innovative approach means that both partners – the community groups and academic researchers – share their knowledge and expertise equitably, valuing both lived and learnt experience to enhance the projects. This creates more impact because the ideas come from needs identified by the community. It shifts and shares power between the partnerships – and steps away from traditionally academic-led projects – to give everyone a voice.

Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation is scrutinising anti-slavery legislation

Effective social justice

Some injustices, however, thrive in between national borders. We have put together a dedicated team of experienced researchers and practitioners, who are united in fighting a crime still infesting worldwide: modern slavery. Our Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation is scrutinising anti-slavery legislation, working hard to close loopholes through which people taken across borders, many of them children, are taken into slavery.

Effective social justice involves scrutinising how causes and symptoms interact. Health outcomes, for example, are linked to wealth, opportunity, and privilege equality. In the Yorkshire and Humber region, the gap in life expectancy at birth between the least and most deprived areas is 11.2 years in males and 9.5 years in females. The region itself has a lower life expectancy than England. The University has committed to tackling health inequalities and improving health outcomes. In its role as a civic institution, the University is working hard to improve health outcomes and transform the lives of people in the Humber region and beyond. Yorkshire Cancer Research has invested over £7.9 million into research programmes here at our Hull York Medical School to develop innovative approaches to cancer diagnosis and treatment, helping to increase the number of early referrals of patients in the region and reducing cancer deaths

Here on campus, we are committed to embedding equality, diversity and inclusion – in our work, learning, research and teaching. As we celebrate LGBTQ + History Month in February, more of our students have shared their stories in our Human Library Project. This is a virtual library where human ‘books’ shed light on their experiences to help people understand one another, challenge unconscious bias, overcome stereotypes and help build a more inclusive campus.

students at hull pride
University staff and students taking part in Pride in Hull

Increasing resilience

There is no doubt that the uncertain future of our climate is looming over all our efforts to promote and protect social justice. Droughts, extreme weather and famines worldwide, flooding and pollution at home, forced migration and human trafficking across borders will all threaten health, security, and financial stability. Our wide-ranging sustainability work strives to help mitigate climate threats and increase resilience. Research ranges from the broad – investigating the prospect of UK climate migrants – to the local – developing flood resilience in the Humber through our £3 million Flood Innovation Centre and community engagement such as through our Risky Cities programme.

The range of social justice work undertaken by the University is a source of immense pride. Last year we launched the University of Hull’s Strategy 2030, in which we committed to create a fairer, brighter, carbon neutral future, with environmental sustainability and social justice informing teaching and research across all our departments. Here on campus, we have made an ambitious commitment to be carbon neutral by 2027, which sets our centenary as a target date and reaffirms our commitment to contribute towards the urgent action needed to reverse the climate crisis.

Our efforts in all of these endeavours are inevitably buffeted by seismic global shifts. However, our focus on the full scope of social challenges, from the global to the local, allows us to consistently undertake research that is making a concrete difference, both within our local community and the wider world.

Allam Medical Building and Brynmor Jones Library with Larkin Solar Panels
On Campus, we have made an ambitious commitment to be carbon neutral by 2027

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