Call to create decolonisation role in each university department

Hepi report says universities need to move past the idea that decolonisation is merely an equality and diversity issue

July 23, 2020
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Every university department should have a position dedicated to decolonisation, according to a new report.

The paper, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute on 23 July, explains that the “current stasis around decolonisation is fuelled by a lack of training and institutional memory, and increased staff workload”.

Departments should therefore hire at least one staff member per department to work specifically on its decolonisation issues, it says. The role would involve creating channels for discussion between students and staff, such as through working groups or student internships.

This role should be filled by someone who is trained in decolonial pedagogy and could also be a position for an early career scholar, the report recommends.

For the report, author Mia Liyanage, a master’s student in US history at the University of Oxford, interviewed activists, academics and policymakers and found that although decolonisation has become much more visible in higher education in recent years, it remained confined to equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives.

According to the interviewees, this is an incredibly damaging misconception, because it allows “tokenistic or unrelated measures to be rebranded as decolonial”.

For example, simply adding scholars of colour to reading lists was regarded as a “small, and therefore limiting, change”. At the same time, efforts to close the attainment gap were not enough because, currently, it would mean students merely assimilating into a white-dominated curriculum.

“Meaningful engagement with decolonisation requires reassessing curricula, attainment and representation concurrently,” the report says. Decolonisation is “a vital part of universities’ future” because it will allow educators and students to “engage critically with the issues at stake in the modern world”.

A reassessment of courses and pedagogy would raise academic standards and allow students to become the “global citizens” that universities say they want their students to be, it says. It is a mistake to think that decolonisation only benefits black and ethnic minority students, according to the report.

The report goes on to say that a less defensive approach from those within universities will be crucial. Respondents explained that they regularly experienced hostility when they advocated for decolonisation, causing them to worry about the impact on their marks or their future job prospects. One academic said that while teaching a cultural competency workshop, the negative comments she received ultimately led her to have to co-deliver the course with a white colleague.

Interviewees said that there was often a fear that decolonisation appeared “too radical” or a misunderstanding that it would mean substituting non-Western texts for existing ones and therefore posing a threat to existing academics, when it actually means adding rather than taking away from the curriculum, the report says.

Specific funding for BAME research would be needed to tackle this problem, according to the report. This would need to be done by reprioritising existing funds but also should include funding from the government and national academic bodies.

Research funding should also come alongside an increase in black studies in the UK, such as the black studies degree programme at Birmingham City University and the new MA programme in black British history at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Ms Liyanage told Times Higher Education that universities were “at a moment where decolonisation and how to be anti-racist is really at the forefront of our political discussions”.

“There are huge benefits to universities [if they decolonise] because it will make them more intellectually stimulating and more academically rigorous…and that understanding will help to improve the lives of staff and students who are currently ignored and face bias and discrimination,” she said.

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Reader's comments (6)

This would be an inappropriate use of funds in STEM subjects when we have recruitment freezes and drastic spending curbs. If there are subjects where this is a problem, they should address it but my own (Engineering) is not one of them. We tackle scientific and technical material that does not come with the sort of issues that seem to be common (if we are to believe the reports) in some subjects. Given the diverse mixture of staff (including senior professors) and students from all over the world in our department, this seems an extravagance.
Are you a fan of Jurassic Park? You know that part where Goldbloom says "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." This is why STEM subjects still need input from the arts, history, politics, etc. You can argue that engineering doesn't come with this baggage, that it is just facts and numbers, but the history of science and the practical implications of a lot of technology still needs lots of decolonising. Whether it's scientific racism in Biology, treating white as default in medicine or AI, and the greater material impacts of modernity on the global south than the global north, decolonising is necessary for STEM subjects as much as anywhere else.
Jurassic Park is a work of fiction, and possibly not the best basis for decision-making in the HE sector.
Shouldn't it be 'decolonialisation', or is that a different 'issue'?
One trouble is that many people don't really know what 'decolonisation' actually means, or get put on the defensive by aggressive people who adopt a "white Western=bad, anything else=good" uncritical approach. This isn't a virtue-signalling exercise, or a blame game about what may have happened in the past. This is an opportunity to broaden our horizons, to share ideas from many cultures and traditions - universities are, after all, places of learning. Having a dedicated post in every department seems overkill, though, unless you happen to have an individual whose research interests include the introduction of greater diversity into the study of [insert discipline here]. There are unlikely to be that number of people worldwide with that research interest to fill a post in every department in every university. Anyway, it's something we all should have an eye to in our teaching, not just leaving it to one person to think about.
The topic matters. The practice matters. Three thoughts: 1 Could we keep the spirit of decolonization whilst reframing it as being for something (positive), rather than against something (bad)? As things we should be doing rather than things we should stop doing? That might feel more – well – positive? 2 It's vital to define the role well. The danger with making it one person's responsibility is that it can become their responsibility alone. And, given that the role is probably going to end up something like "supporting / ensuring / leading / facilitating ... " aforementioned good things to happen, isn't is inevitably the responsibility of Course Leader / Head of Department? They might need some help. That might be the role. 3 Practice is more likely to be effective when supported by good, thought-through policy and QA frameworks. It would be great to see examples of these. Maybe in a future THE? (Unless you've already run it and I missed it, in which case, my apologies.)