To ‘decolonise’ education, we need to ask different questions

Universities often reproduce colonial logics by exploiting, commodifying and diluting the very ‘thing’ that was to set us free, says Manvir Grewal

March 9, 2021
The Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Oxford has become emblematic of the struggle against colonial thought and structural racism in the UK
Source: iStock

The past year has seen questions of race, identity and equality thrust into the limelight once more. Protests shook cities across the world and, in the UK, numerous statues were toppled in the name of progress and decolonisation.

The latter term has become a clarion call for Western universities, most of which are falling over themselves to trumpet their decolonisation efforts, but to demonstrate a serious commitment to decolonial approaches, universities must reassess their relationship with “decolonisation” and shift the way they frame their efforts. Sustainable change can only happen if we approach with caution, being more thoughtful and mindful in our actions and reactions.  

After the killing of George Floyd, universities expressed solidarity, developed action plans and actively committed to creating an anti-racist environment for colleagues and students. These grand pledges included specific commitments to decolonise.

THE Campus resource: Anti-racist practice for digital and online learning

However, in the past, well-intentioned pledges have often become tokenistic and non-actionable. In the past few years, “decolonisation” has entered the corporate language of universities and although it presents itself as progressive, in practice it legitimises colonial logics in many ways.

This false progression leads to excessive usage, misguided endeavours, rushed projects and an intransigent determination to see results. Such a way of approaching “decolonisation” does more harm not only to colleagues, students and their environments but also to the legacy of decolonial thought. In this way, institutions are prone to reproducing colonial logics by exploiting, commodifying and diluting the very “thing” that was to set us free.

Institutions are also infatuated with measuring how far we have come and the impact on our students. Yet those interested in decolonial thought know this cannot be measured, as there is no end goal and there certainly isn’t a path to get there (wherever that place is, if it is a place at all). We cannot, and undoubtedly should not, quantify how far we are along our pathway to freedom. There is no one-size-fits-all explanatory approach.

Impact evaluations not only reproduce colonial thinking, but measurement tools often use colonial methods to examine the “value” of this false progression. So, we become trapped in the cycle of recolonising.

As a starting point, we should come to terms with the fact that decolonisation is not realistically attainable in an environment that thrives on coloniality. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, and our institutions: what world do we imagine beyond this one? What place do we dream of?

We know we dream of places that do not exist. We dream of freedom we have never felt, freedom we will most likely never have. We do all this dreaming in a space that thrives on ranking systems and sells knowledge as a commodity.

Rather than focus on “measuring” decolonisation, we should focus on the sharing and collaboration of ideas and practices, without epistemic appropriation. Moving away from a neoliberal approach to decolonisation, can we spend some time considering what we are doing when we appropriate the language of decolonial thought? What are the implications on the coloniser and the colonised? What promises are we making, and effectively breaking? Do our teaching and research create spaces for new places, or prevent them?

These are not just questions but reflexive prompts that will deepen and enrich our thinking and, thus, our decolonial approaches.

THE Campus resource: Expert Q&A on equity-first instruction

Often, efforts that are labelled under “decolonisation” are really just diversification. Although they appear similar, they have separate focal concerns. Let us take the curriculum as an example. If we are trying to diversify, we might look at the reading lists, and ensure that assessments are inclusive, teaching practices are diverse and the curriculum meets the demographics of our student body. To be clear, this is an important task, which requires structures to hold our institutions accountable, but often it does not de-centre dominant knowledge forms.

If we are trying to “decolonise the curriculum”, regrettably, we will not succeed. The curriculum itself is a colonial tool, presenting the Western, Euro-centric modes of knowledge as dominant, neutral and natural. Taking inspiration from Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. Instead, we must strive to subvert the master’s house by confronting and exposing epistemic discomfort through decolonial thought.

In this way, taking decolonial approaches to the curricula means we are also naturally diversifying. The reality, though, is that our institutions are not best placed for this rigorous innovation.

Recognising this can be the very thing that starts the urgent and necessary reflexive work, both professionally and personally. It allows us to question the colonial tools and processes that persist in hiring strategies, research excellence systems, and learning and teaching practices.

I ask us all to alter our language, so it reflects the work we might be doing. We need to consider what we are undertaking: for whom, why and how? Within the spaces we enter, we need to be curious as to what is being recognised as decolonialisation and decolonial − who does it serve and who does it not? We need to consider whether our existence in these very spaces, and more widely academia, is more colonial then decolonial.

To be clear, taking decolonial approaches to our research and teaching is a must. Only by working on our decolonial self can we imagine other worlds within this world. Our institutions need it. Our students deserve it. But more so, we will be freer because of it.

Manvir Grewal is a lecturer at the University of Westminster. She is also equality, diversity and inclusion lead at the university’s Law School and interested in decolonial thinking, the legal profession and more widely challenging the power structures that sustain and perpetuate inequalities.

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