Decolonising universities: what does this really mean?

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Durham University Students Union has recently launched the ‘Decolonise Durham Network’. It is an initiative which aims to “bring together students and staff to think critically about education and the university as a whole” and has been instigated by -Audini, the outgoing Undergraduate Officer. But what does this really mean? It seems an abstract approach, and perhaps on those grounds unattainable. However, aside from the ambiguity of the discussion around decolonialisation, there have been several tangible commitments made by universities around the country.

The reason decolonialisation is perhaps more ambiguous than on first perception is because the colonial legacy endemic to universities is buried within the structure and history of these institutions. According to a 2018 BBC study, proportionately more BAME and POC students attend university than white students, but degree classification statistics and discontinuation rates are not proportionate. It is therefore the underlying structure of the university system, and the experience of minority students within this system, which projects an inherent colonial legacy.

The colonial legacy endemic to universities is buried within the structure and history of these institutions.

In a 2017 Ted Talk, Melz Owusu, a masters student at Leeds University, stated that because minority students do not feel represented in their educational institutions, they had to “build coping mechanisms” to exist within such a white educational structure. University curricula and campus environments need to be reformed so that minority students are able to feel represented in what they study, and that they are taught by people of their own ethnicity and sexuality, as well as others. This requires critiquing a euro-centric thought process and legacy. Simphiwe Laura Stewart, a phD student from Oxford University, has emphasised that “a decolonialised curriculum relies on critical pedagogy.” It is this critique of what and why we are learning that will inaugurate the decolonialisation process.

Historian Tom Holland has raised the issue that such decolonisation attempts risk “over-moralising” what is taught in universities. This is an argument which is particularly relevant for STEM subjects, which are often considered apolitical. Yet, as stated in the podcast ‘POCSquared’, which is hosted by students from Queen Mary University, the process of decolonising the curriculum in STEM subjects involves adding more facts to subjects which have been shrouded in the guise of being apolitical. This means that although science and mathematics are not necessarily opinions by nature, they still bare a colonial legacy.

Although science and mathematics are not necessarily opinions by nature, they still bear a colonial legacy.

The University of Oxford is seeking to correct this through its recently launched ‘Diversifying STEM Curriculum Project’. This initiative will work across the university to produce material promoting “a critical understanding of the historical context of key scientific concepts/theorems/research, and highlight and discuss important contributions from a diverse range of people…those who may have been sidelined or not given the recognition they deserve.”

Other practical efforts have been developed by UK universities. Leeds University, in the wake of the country-wide ‘Closing the Gap’ report in May, promises to investigate and produce data on the discontinuation of BAME and POC students within each faculty. Leeds has also said that they will recruit ‘Diversity Ambassadors’ in each faculty for the next academic year. Likewise, Keele University has published a manifesto for their decolonisation aims, stating that their priority is “acknowledging that knowledge is not owned by anyone” and that education “is a cumulative and shared resource that is available to all.” Keele has also committed to adapting their reading lists to include minority voices but will also advocate the “critical reading of ‘traditionally mainstream’ texts.”

So far only a fifth of UK universities have committed to decolonising their curriculum.

Manchester University has taken a similar approach to Durham. ‘Decolonise UoM’ is a united group of staff and students with the motto of “divest, decolonise, democratise”, and the aim of encouraging a more democratic and free education. The group demands that the university considers developing both Black studies and Queer studies degree programs, to be financed by the university. Again, this campaign echoes the mantra of being actively critical of “colonial thought processes implicit in the fabric of our education”.

So far only a fifth of UK universities have committed to decolonising their curriculum. The aforementioned universities are therefore the vanguard for leading a productive inquiry into the colonial legacies which remain in UK universities, and how these institutions can move away from a solely euro-centric gaze within their curricula. Across my reading for this article, the word “critical” has been emblazoned on almost every manifesto, article and podcast committed to the campaign for decolonialisation within universities. It seems that this kind of thoughtful approach is what universities are using and will use across their campuses, curricula, employment and hopefully within individual’s beliefs.

Photograph: Haneen Krimley via Unsplash.

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