Durham Students’ Union adds decolonisation to core principles

By Will Hutchings, Saniya Saraf, and

Durham Students’ Union has added decolonisation of the curriculum to its list of core principles after a vote at the most recent SU Assembly on the 6th February. 

The issue of decolonisation is recognised by the SU as an ongoing issue, and its status will necessitate that future officer teams continue to work towards it. 

The motion was proposed by current SU Undergraduate Academic Representative -Audini, who listed decolonisation as one of the three key concerns of their platform.

Johnson-Audini explained that decolonisation is about “combatting the way in which our curriculum, our worldview, our institutions (etc.) reproduce the values associated with colonialism and imperialism.” 

They went on to explain that this project is important because “the ideas we decide to discuss and the ideas we don’t is crucial. The curriculum can end up reinforcing the same views without realising. 

“The SU’s position made me feel like at least some part of the Durham bureaucracy was listening to the demands of its POC students.”

“It’s about who we value, and why we value them.” 

Although the first to focus on the issue, Johnson-Audini is not the first Officer to introduce elements of decolonisation into the SU offices. 

Working groups focusing on decolonisation-adjacent issues had been set up before, and previous SU Undergraduate Academic Officer Saul Cahill had a focus on “liberating the curriculum”. 

Nailah Haque, President of Durham People of Colour Association, told Palatinate: “As time goes on there is a new cohort of students who are no longer reflective of the traditional, middle-class, white, private school educated population. Durham as a result has a responsibility to make sure the curriculum and space is adapting to these changes and being a lot more reflective of these shifts. 

“Through decolonising, Durham will become a lot more open and more racially and culturally aware which will make the university a lot more safe for people of colour but also for other marginalised groups.” 

Haque continued: “The SU’s position made me feel like at least some part of the Durham bureaucracy was listening to the demands of its POC students and also like we were finally making some sort of progress in making Durham safer and accessible for POC students. 

“I think it shows that there is a demand for change that can no longer be ignored like it has been.” 

The University is aware of the problems it has with race and students of BAME backgrounds. In its Access and Participation Plan 2020/21-2024/25, the University acknowledges that it “has an access challenge around the ethnic mix of its intake”. On top of this, there is “a particular issue around the proportion of black students”.

Palatinate has previously reported in the past that Durham employs half as many BAME staff as the average for Russell Group universities, as well as a larger than average pay gap for BAME academics. 

Against this backdrop, Johnson-Audini remarks: “How can we not talk about decolonisation? How can we sit by and allow a university to attempt to recruit BAME students, students of colour, and international students without representing them in the curriculum?” 

“It’s about who we value, and why we value them.” 

Johnson-Audini’s approach differs from that of the University, with its focus on curriculum reform rather than student intake. Whereas the University has set up working groups towards making BAME students feel more included, the decolonisation campaign focuses on representing more voices of those from marginalised communities in the curriculum. 

This motion is by no means the end of the decolonisation project. A formal decolonise Durham network launch is expected later this term. The Students’ Union is also working with Durham University Library on a #LiberateMyLibrary campaign, encouraging students and staff to recommend items that will increase the diversity of its book collections.

Photograph: via Wikimedia Commons

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