What are the demands of decolonising UK universities?

In discussing the demands that decolonisation places on universities, it is important to understand what is meant by the term decolonising. There is no one definition nor one practice that can encompass what is meant by decolonisation. In stating that decolonisation is not a metaphor, Tuck & Yang (2012) explicitly argue that decolonisation must be about bringing the repatriation of indigenous land and life rather than a way to discuss how society can be improved, for example through the movement to decolonise universities and education more generally. Prominent decolonial thinkers such as Fanon (1963) argued that decolonisation sets out to change the order of the world whilst Césaire (2000) suggests that decolonisation is about consciousness and the rejection of values, norms, customs and worldviews in which former colonisers implemented within global societies. In focusing more specifically within the context of universities; Bhambra, Gebrial & Nişancıoğlu (2018) write that decolonising the university provides a platform to otherwise silenced/erased decolonial work and offers a specific resource for students and academics who want to challenge the ways in which coloniality is perpetuated in their classrooms, curricula and campuses. This provides a useful starting point for discussing the demands that decolonisation places on universities, however, is not inclusive of other roles that exist within the university such as non-academic staff and the ways in which they can play a part in the movement to decolonise universities. When understanding decolonising, it must be seen as a way of thinking about the world which acknowledges the impact of colonialism, empire, racism and other forms of discrimination on how universities have been (and continue to be) structured and how they are experienced. The decolonising project should also be seen as both political and personal (McLaughlin & Whatman, 2007) as institutions do not exist in a vacuum, disconnected from wider society and meaningful decolonisation must holistically incorporate all aspects of daily life.

Similarly to all institutions within society, the university is both a product and a reflection of the wider society in which it is located and embedded within (Keval, 2019). Historically, European higher education institutions were infrastructures of empire as they were founded and financed through colonialism, imperialism, enslavement and dispossession (Bhambra, Gebrial & Nişancıoğlu, 2018). Universities such as SOAS were built in order to train colonists, providing instruction to colonial administrators, commercial managers and military officers but also to missionaries, doctors and teachers. As a consequence, universities have played and continue to play a central role in furthering the Eurocentric epistemological global North as the only source of valid knowledge (Bhambra & Santos, 2017). In contemporary society, colonial legacies remain intertwined with both the literal and pedagogical infrastructure of universities. It is vital to understand that even in contemporary society, university institutions are not immune to processes of capitalism, neoliberalism, racism and other forms of discrimination as well as being deeply embedded in their colonial pasts. Social, political and economic inequalities within the UK continue to shape higher education and experiences of higher education (Fataar, 2018). Decolonisation must address the role of wider capitalistic and neoliberal forces in commodifying universities and those that exist within and in relation to them. The privatization of universities in the UK in the past decade has shifted the notion of education from a social right to the personal responsibility of individuals (Bhambra, Gebrial & Nişancıoğlu, 2018) as well as from a public university to a neoliberal university (Pluto Press, 2018). These shifts have exacerbated racial inequalities and disparities at numerous levels including enrolment, attainment and general experiences. In the efforts to decolonise universities, there is a demand for free education (Fataar, 2018), countering the increasing (re)elitism of university spaces. Mbembe (2016) supports this and argues that we must decolonize systems of access and management, breaking the contemporary cycle that has turned and continues to turn students into customers and consumers. He argues that education has been commodified and students increasingly, solely seek academic credit, certifications and degrees as their goals of university life, rather than expanding one’s understanding and knowledge of the world in a pluralistic way. Whilst universities claim to encourage diversity and inclusion, the current marketization of the university entails an attack on this diversity, constraining higher education towards limited utilitarian purposes (Bhambra, 2016). This, in turn, minimises the possibility of “meaningful social critique and resistance — and thus democratization” (p.965).

Decolonising knowledge is a key demand of decolonising the university and one major aspect of the national Why Is My Curriculum White campaign. One approach to decolonising the university or more specifically curricula has simply entailed adding new items to existing curricula (Heleta, 2016), for example, literature from the global South or Black feminist thinkers. This is an example of diversifying, rather than decolonising a curriculum (Abdi, 2019) and is arguably too simplistic an approach which allows for the ticking of boxes, rather than meaningful transformations within universities. This distinction is supported by Gopal (2017) who stated that “to decolonise and not just diversify curriculums is to recognise that knowledge is inevitably marked by power relations”. Bhambra & Santos (2017) state that the impetus in decolonising must be transformative as opposed to additive; it must incorporate the questioning and critiquing of concepts, theories, representations, pedagogy and the way in which curricula is delivered (Abdi, 2019). Girish Daswani highlights how universities can create more challenges are they are more interested in performing diversity and diversification rather than creating structural, decolonial change (O’Sullivan, 2019). Not only are additive approaches simplistic, their performativity is exacerbated through non-Eurocentric knowledge being sidelined to optional/elective modules, or at the ends of reading lists rather than embedded within core modules and core knowledge. This has significant impacts for marginalised scholars who, as a result of Eurocentric curricula and lack of citations, profit less and have less access to funding, inhibiting promotional opportunities. It also allows for the perpetuation of global hierarchies in relation to knowledge production where Western knowledge is considered of universal value, whilst non-Western knowledge is only of relative/particular value (Bhambra & Santos, 2017), whilst allowing universities to appear as though they are diverse or encourage decoloniality. This notion of performativity is widespread in a number of institutions that frequently use the decolonising efforts of students, staff and faculty (whom are often Black/Indigenous/People of Colour (BIPOC) to promote a university or a specific department as progressive or diverse despite the existence of strong institutional backlash to these efforts. Academic/institutional language such as the terms diversity, inclusivity and attainment perpetuate this aforementioned performativity and in the demand for decolonisation, should be switched to structural racism, neo-colonial narratives and institutionally embedded bias (Keval, 2019).

Whilst transforming reading lists to include marginalised writers such as non-white, queer, womxn, disabled and indigenous people (and the intersections of these), should not be viewed as a tick box for decolonisation, it is important to acknowledge how thus far, there has been a domination of white, (masculinised) Eurocentric knowledge at universities despite the majority of the world consisting of Black and Brown people (Hall, 2019). This Eurocentrism within the curriculum has sought to universalise the West and provincialise the rest (Zeleza, 2009). The knowledge, therefore, of colonised groups, non-Europeans and indigenous folx has been suppressed and in the movement to decolonise universities, there must be demands for cognitive justice and knowledge pluralisation (Fataar, 2016) that situates Eurocentric knowledge in relation to the plethora of knowledge(s) that exist outside Eurocentrism (Keval, 2019). Decolonising knowledge must incorporate acknowledgement of the sources and geo-political locations in which the knowledge has been produced whilst recognising the practices of knowledge that have been invalidated due to the dominance of Eurocentric forms of knowledge (Bhambra, 2014). This is vital as the space and place we inhabit produces us (Probyn, 2003) and apolitical scholarship does not exist (Mohanty, 1984). This demand to decolonise knowledge must recognise the colonial hegemony and processes of domination within academic institutions (Ka’ia, 2005) and challenge consequent colonial forms of knowledge, pedagogical strategies and research methodologies (McLaughlin & Whatman, 2007). Decolonial thinkers argue that as the university is a place of authoritative, certified knowledge, it is at the heart of epistemic violence (Pillay, 2015). This notion of epistemic violence is also described as epistemicide (Santos, 2014) or what Mbembe (2016) states that Latinx people call “epistemic coloniality” (p.36). With this epistemic violence, there are demands for justice that centre and promote epistemic openness, undermining previous knowledge parochialism and establishing dialogical platforms (Fataar, 2018). Whilst the struggle for political and economic transformation within the university asks questions about the lack of BIPOC at all levels within the institution, the struggle against epistemic violence questions what is one teaching, how is one teaching and why is one teaching in that way (Pillay, 2015). Therefore, there is a necessity to entirely rethink, reframe and reconstruct (Heleta, 2016) Eurocentric curriculums and teaching practices at universities, acknowledging the heterogeneity of all reality (Quijano, 2007). In decolonising the classroom and academic praxis, there are increasing demands to incorporate non-Western-traditional teaching methods such as the use of artistic forms including spoken word, poetry, music and paintings (O’Sullivan, 2019) as both forms of knowledge and ways to critically and creatively engaging with topics allowing for alternate epistemic traditions to be fused into learning. One must also acknowledge citation as a political practice through the decolonisation of universities. Who we cite, who gets cited, why and how we cite is crucial in challenging Eurocentric traditions in higher education. Citation as a political practice is not a new phenomenon and has been discussed by Delgado (1984) in a ground-breaking article The Imperial Scholar where he wrote of the failure to acknowledge minority scholarship and explicitly how even the most prominent of Black thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois only receives/d occasional citation. Rey (2018) supports citation being political and, I would add, a potential [de]colonial practice. There has been a longstanding history of ‘top’ (white) scholars relying on closed circles of citation (Rey, 2018), reinforcing barriers to racial inclusion whilst securing more funding. This not only exacerbates racial inequality within employment but also in (inter)generational wealth as well as knowledge production.

Demands for decolonising universities includes the transformation of university spaces, in particular classrooms, into anti-hierarchical spaces where everyone is able to learn, engage, debate and critically reflect together (Rouhani, 2012). This means not only involving students in the movement to decolonise curricula, teaching and learning but also acknowledging that learning can and should be a dialogical, relational process where new pedagogies can be created with students, rather than just for students (Freire, 1972; Motta, 2013). This falls in line with Pillay’s (2015) assertion that in decolonising universities, there is the potential to redefine the very idea of the university itself. This could allow for the shift to a ‘pluriversity’ (Mbembe, 2016, p.37) rather than a university which centres epistemic diversity and “a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions” (p.37). When discussing anti-hierarchical spaces in the context of decolonisation, it is vital to acknowledge the deliberate exploitation of outsourced cleaning, support and security staff at many universities in the UK (Heleta, 2016). At the time of writing this, Goldsmiths anti-racist action group had been in occupation of Deptford Town Hall for over 70 days with 12 key demands from Goldsmiths as a university institution in order to ensure better treatment of BIPOC; both staff and students, whilst addressing a number of ways in which institutional racism and other forms of discrimination are being perpetuated on their campus. Their first demand stood in solidarity with outsourced workers such as security, reception and cleaning staff; the majority of whom are Black, Asian and Latinx people of colour who were being treated unequally by Goldsmiths University. Whilst this university would not be able to function without these staff members, they were unable to access the same privileges that Goldsmiths-employed staff and students can enjoy (Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Action, 2019). In order to successfully decolonise universities, they must be transformed into anti-hierarchical and anti-racist (Tate & Bagguley, 2017) spaces where workers are brought in-house and treated with respect, dignity and equal rights.

A key demand of decolonising universities is decolonising the infrastructure of a university. Mbembe (2016) argues that the decolonisation of buildings is not a frivolous issue and that universities must undergo decolonisation as an institution as well as in relation to knowledge; contesting university infrastructure both literally and pedagogically. This ties in to the way in which the privileged at university ignore the painful lived experiences that Black students and workers go through on a daily basis (Heleta, 2016); for example, how we are expected to be comfortable and thrive at universities which commemorate colonial figures who have ‘tormented and violated all that which the name ‘Black’ stands for while they were alive’ (Mbembe, 2016, p.30). The Rhodes Must Fall (#RMF) movements in South Africa at the University of Cape Town and in the UK at the University of Oxford in ridding their respective campuses of monuments dedicated to British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (Knudsen & Anderson, 2019) can be viewed as affective socio-spatial strategies to decolonise universities. Whilst Bhambra (2016) discusses how the demographic diversity of university faculty and students is central to the legitimation of Eurocentric ideas within the university and within wider public, it can also be applied that this white-dominated demographic has allowed for the continued justification and proliferation of these statues.

White supremacy can be found in every facet of universities’ infrastructure. Smith & Iqbal (2019) wrote about how at the Why Is My Curriculum White: Decolonising Geographies event that I co-organised and facilitated, the University of Leeds is not a member of the Race Equality Charter — a charter that aims to ‘improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education’ (ECU, no date). 164 universities hold Athena SWAN membership — a charter aiming to address gender inequality within higher education — however, only 55 universities are members of the Race Equality Charter (ECU, no date). Whilst the distinctive memberships do not account for marginalised people who face intersecting institutional oppression — for example Black women — the stark difference in membership suggests that institutions are much less committed to addressing issues of racial inequality and colonialism than gender inequality. It is important to note that in the movement to decrease gender inequality at universities, women of colour have not been accounted for. Here, I centre the work of María Lugones and other intersectionality theorists such as Audre Lorde and Patricia Hill Collins who highlight how there has been a “historical and […] theoretico-practical exclusion of non-white women from liberatory struggles in the name of “Women”” (Lugones, 2008, p.1). In decolonising universities, intersectional theory must be centred within praxis and action as when Blackness and womanhood are treated as homogenous, atomic, separable categories, those who exist at the intersection are ignored and/or erased. When BIPOC/BIWOC are included within universities, they are often tokenistically represented, spoken on behalf of and/or reduced to being objects of scholarship (Bhambra, Gebrial & Nişancıoğlu, 2018). A demand of decolonising universities in the UK should include becoming a member of this Charter and recognising the importance of students, staff and faculty who come from different intersecting backgrounds.

Decolonisation of universities must also address the ways in which they partner with international institutions, students and faculty. In the vast majority of UK universities, there is a lack of study abroad/exchange options in the global South, with often no options in Central Africa and the Caribbean. Mbembe (2016) specifically states that universities have to set up study in Africa programs for students. This widespread UK institutional decision to not seek out partnership universities in the global South is likely a product of the colonial infrastructure of universities which does not recognise higher education institutions in these regions as legitimate sites of knowledge production. The lack of partnerships can also discourage BIPOC students who have direct connections and/or desires to study in these regions from participating in a study abroad programme as well as inhibiting BIPOC international students from the global South in accessing UK universities for a period of study. Decolonisation places a demand to build new diasporic intellectual networks (Mbembe, 2016). This lack of consideration of institutions and people within the global South links with the unequal ways in which non-EU international students and staff are treated. Universities often pride themselves on being internationally inclusive, however, this can be very performative, especially in the current climate of hostile environment. A key demand of decolonisation must ensure protection and equal rights granted to both EU and non-EU faculty members and students fighting against surveillance requirements and supporting extortionate visa and health insurance costs (Loyola-Hernandez, 2019) of which the large majority of UK universities do not currently do.

Tackling the racial attainment gap is an integral demand of decolonising universities, supported by Sabaratnam (2017) who states that “racialised attainment gaps anywhere are not an acceptable part of higher education.” Professor. Bhambra calls attention to the fact there is no gender or class gap in attainment and so the presence of a race gap suggests that universities are sites that actively produce racial inequality (Dundoo, 2019). In findings by the UK’s Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) there is a 16.1% attainment gap between BME and white students (ECU, 2016). This is supported by research conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS) that found that non-white students are overall less likely to receive top classifications for their degrees, even when adjusting for entrance grades, age, institution and socioeconomic background (NUS, 2017). There are multiple contributing factors to this, which in a report about the racial attainment gap, SOAS Students’ Union (2016) separated into two parts. Firstly, a racist teaching and learning environment and secondly, barriers to support and accountability. In the demands for decolonisation and consequently eliminating the racial attainment gap, numerous avenues need to be addressed to tackle part one including transforming curricula, BIPOC staff and student underrepresentation, exclusion and racism in the classroom as well as racism in assessment (SOAS Students’ Union, 2016). For example, the UK having only 35 Black British female professors compared with over 12,000 white male professors (UCU, 2020) shows a clear issue in under-representation of faculty and should be viewed as one urgent demand of the inter-linked processes of decolonisation and lessening the racial attainment gap. In assessing barriers to support and accountability, the lack of specialist mental health services on university campuses needs to be addressed as well as accessing tailored and racially-sensitive support from lecturers and tutors, in study skills and in making complaints. Tate and Bagguley (2017) suggest similar reasons for the racial attainment gap focusing on institutional racism, Eurocentric curricula and faculty who do not reflect the UK’s demographic diversity. These areas of university experience have been attributed as causal factors of the attainment gap and must be confronted in the demands that decolonisation places on universities.

One must understand that the process of decolonising does not have a finite end and recognise that in the attempt to decolonise universities, it may mean the abolition of these universities (Pluto Press, 2018). Here, it is helpful to draw on Lorde’s (1984) assertion that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, however Bhambra (2016) encourages us to question this assertion that the tools are the ‘master’s’. This creates for an interesting debate as to whether decolonising universities is actually possible, due to the ways in which they were formed and whom they were initially created to serve. I believe that decolonising universities and even the notion of a university itself cannot occur without radical transformations in all aspects of society including the dismantling/finite end of Western capitalism that relies on violent inequality, exploitation and discrimination.

If you believe in free, transformational, radical knowledge that centres the most marginalised and allows minoritised groups to learn, heal and empower themselves and one another: please consider donating to the Free Black University fund.


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Monisha Issano Jackson

Lesbian Black feminist PhDing in Atlanta, GA. Born and raised in South London. Indo & Afro Guyanese. Focused on race, gender, sexuality, colonialism and JOY.