Online classrooms will expose inequalities, but this is an opportunity for change

The reboot of universities post-Covid against a backdrop of anti-racist protests makes decolonising the curriculum imperative, says Priya Rajasekar

June 8, 2020
Student on a laptop

The idea of the university classroom as a private setting sounds incredible and yet, strangely, systemic racism and inequalities mean that a student can – sometimes out of desire, sometimes not – remain hidden, passing through the higher education system virtually unnoticed. So while some students aim to attract attention with the confidence that often comes cloaked in privilege, others are forced into obscurity, polarising university experiences.

The events of the past fortnight, however, have trained the spotlight on the banality of racism and the plight of its victims. As young people around the world erupt in protest over the killing of George Floyd – yet another life snuffed out at the gallows of systemic discrimination – the silent screams of even the quietest student of colour seek a response from those in academia.

Privileged with the task of nurturing a just and humane society, and as core constituents of higher education, academics will have to respond to the charge that, willing or not, they are part of an institutional apparatus that perpetuates racism and dehumanisation.

Meanwhile, in readiness for a post Covid-19 world, universities and schools continue to prepare for all scenarios, including exclusive online delivery of courses. Attempting to gain an education from their home, the average student may no longer have the option to choose their privacy settings.

The relatively levelling ambience of the university classroom will be replaced by an environment that starkly reveals both inequality and diversity. Thanks to Zoom, Skype and Facebook, cameras around the globe will show off wealth and privilege in sharp contrast to carefully concealed secrets of impoverished homes and culturally far-removed living-room décor. Mums in purdahs or siblings with disabilities may show up on camera during lectures.

As universities grapple with questions on how to deliver classes online, and as massive open online courses flood cyberspace with ideas of powerful tech and colourful games that ease the pain of transition, it is easy to lose sight of the fears and anxieties of those with a marginal voice and presence. Will they be pushed further to the edge?

The historian Rutger Bregman, who took billionaires to task over tax avoidance at the 2019 World Economic Forum, has, on multiple occasions, drawn attention to Milton Friedman’s line: “Only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”.

But, is it enough for ideas to lie around? Shouldn’t those with the power to bring about change be able to perceive these ideas and value their merit? What if years of cultural and social conditioning has blinded them to possibilities?

For a while now, universities have included the word “decolonisation” in their lexicon and yet the rate and pace of change is unimpressive. For instance, a report from Universities UK and the National Union of Students reveals a 13 per cent attainment gap in 2017-18 between white and black and minority ethnic (BAME) students, while also indicating that a mere 0.6 per cent of professors and 0.7 per cent of other senior academic staff were BAME.           

As teaching staff and universities are brought face-to-face with the lack of diversity and the inequalities within their student body, problems as well as opportunities become more apparent.

Through her persistent argument for decolonisation, indigenous scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith raises three key questions that every university and academic should attempt to answer. She asks, if in adopting a decolonised approach, there is a willingness to change the name of the course, the composition of the staff that teach it and the content of the curriculum. Going beyond reading lists and other cosmetic changes, she attempts to illuminate the deep-rooted discriminations in the production and distribution of knowledge within universities.

The post-Covid classroom makes such a change not only possible, but imperative. As socio-economic inequalities are accentuated, academics are in for some soul-searching. Meanwhile, as the student experience is brought into living rooms, bedrooms and around kitchen tables worldwide, questions will be raised by both parents and students over whether the cost and effort are worth it.

On the brighter side, never has it been more possible to access diverse knowledge where distance takes on a wholly different meaning. An expert lecture from a scholar in Africa, for example, could be just as easy to organise as one from the city of London. Our world has been opened to new possibilities, like cross-country collaborative courses, creative projects and lecture designs, and cross-disciplinary learning for students. This may well be the best time to take up decolonisation in earnest and make the most of it to address some of the starkest inequalities of our education system in a meaningful and impactful way.

The mother in the purdah may turn out to be a subject matter expert and the sibling with the disability could open students’ minds to consider a different lived experience. Living room décor and lunchtime menus could inspire lessons on culture or history, and a religious festival in a BAME home could be an opportunity to understand an unfamiliar religion.

A core purpose of university education is to encourage critical thinking and engender the collective will to promote socio-economic and political justice that makes for a peaceful world.

As we reboot higher education in a post-Covid world, our moral duty as academics is a timely and affirmative response to the urgency for decolonisation. Our curricula cannot continue to lie by omission.

Priya Rajasekar researches on the geopolitics of knowledge and teaches journalism at Coventry University.

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