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Decolonising the university

During People & Planet's Go Green Week 2020, SOS-UK, NUS UK and People & Planet co-hosted and co-organised a webinar on �Decolonising the University�. This platformed the decolonial work currently taking place at Warwick and Leicester, allowing others to explore how they might start similar work individually, or with other campuses.

This blog piece follows the format of a question by question write-up of the webinar, which took place on 13th February. Not all of the conversation is included - for length purposes - but you can read the full conversation transcript here and watch and listen to the webinar here.

For editing reasons the aim of this blog piece is "to share extracts of the conversation about what decolonisation means, what decolonial work is happening on university campuses across the UK and how decolonisation links to climate and social justice".


If you want to skip to specific questions these are the ones that are answered:

  1. What does it mean to talk about decolonisation?
  2. What�s been happening on decolonisation at Warwick?
  3. What projects have students been working on around this at Warwick?
  4. What�s been happening on decolonisation at Leicester?
  5. What projects have students been working on around this at Leicester?
  6. In your own experience or through decolonial practices/examples you�ve read about, what would a decolonised university look like? What are some practical ways to have anti-racist pedagogical practise?
  7. How can we make sure to include a critical decolonial perspective within our activism? Examples might include climate activism, migrant solidarity, decolonise education. Who should we be learning from and what should we be challenging on campus & beyond?
  8. How does sustainability and decolonisation intersect, how can we bring this into everyday events that students will engage with and how do we make our decolonial work  part of the work going on in the climate crisis, especially in Go Green Week?

Summary of speakers:

Fope Olaleye - NUS Black Students� Officer.

Chloe Batten - Education Officer and Deputy President at the University of Warwick Students' Union.

Adnan Rahman - Education Officer at the University of Leicester Students' Union (�ULSU�) and NUS Black Students Campaign NEC 2nd Place.


1. What does it mean to talk about decolonisation?

Fope: The study of post-colonialism that rejects knowledge along hierarchical lines. Decolonisation aims to engage, examine, challenge or critique knowledge about the world produced for colonial logics that reinforce dualities. Basically, decolonisation rejects the idea that knowledge production begins in the West and rejects the Global South or only sees the world through a very narrow lens. A couple of years ago the Black Students Campaign started the Decolonise Network which brings together different chapters across universities. This is being relaunched this year with podcasts & videos.

Adnan: the very word �decolonise� is easily co-opted and has kind of lost meaning. It is an inherently radical and revolutionary thing. It�s not something to be diluted by the institution. If we want to go ahead with decolonisation, we have to ask ourselves if we are prepared to go outside of the framework we are currently in and reframe the terms of education. Because if not then unfortunately we need to steer away from that term. In essence, a decolonised education is outside the current framework and it�s impossible in the current one. You can still do stuff, but you have to acknowledge that you are sticking plasters on an inherently broken system.


2. What�s been happening on decolonisation at Warwick?

Chloe: Last year the Education Officer, Larissa Kennedy, laid all of the groundwork for the Decolonise Project at Warwick and how it currently looks. She really integrated the project into many different areas of the university, whilst making sure it was student-led and student-owned. The project sits with the Students� Union, but was very much set up in collaboration with academics and key leaders within the university.

About a year ago, Larissa really pushed some work on the Black Attainment Gap and put a paper through to the committee responsible for the Student Learning Experience. She was also a part of a learning circle which was a group of academics and student fellows focused on anti-racist pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching as an academic subject or theoretical concept) and process. The Decolonise Project came out of there. This is really important because as much as work on the curriculum is important it can be quite easy for the university just to keep it to the curriculum and it can fall into �diversify� rather than �decolonial� work - therefore it�s about what we teach, what learning spaces look like and the dynamics between students and academics. It�s about how we decolonise the spaces of the university as well.

In practise, we have twelve student advocates and they all go to different departments in the university and try to open up conversations with academics. They also speak to students in the departments to find out about their experience of curriculum, teaching and learning and do qualitative research with surveys and focus groups. The aim is for that to then feedback into the university to ensure that the lived experience of students is at the forefront of what changes they are making.  This is in order to challenge Warwick�s data-heavy approach to attainment gaps, which makes it dehumanised and depersonalised. The Decolonise Project offers that student experience element to this.


3. What projects have students been working on around this at Warwick?

Chloe: At the end of last year, the Decolonise Network facilitated an event that got academics and other key people around the university involved. There were about 50 people there. I had never seen so many people come together to discuss decolonisation and anti-racism before. This year they are looking to do a Decolonise Summit. A key element of this is connecting with students not on the decolonise project but in societies like our anti-racism society and others doing work in other liberation spaces.

We are ensuring there is a community element to the work, so that as it expands the students will be able to go into our local community as well. There are really cool networks in Coventry who are doing this kind of thing and have come to various events with the anti-racism society. It�s really important we share practise and tie this work to the community and don�t just keep this kind of learning within the university bubble.


4. What�s been happening on decolonisation at Leicester?

Adnan: When I got elected the way I saw decolonising the university as twofold:

  1. Getting the buy in, resources and support from senior leadership of the university - making sure they�re having a steer on this issue and encouraging university staffers to buy into what we want
  2. Empowering those on the ground like student reps and our staff, for example with the practical skills to actively deliver change on their course. This is important because fundamentally decolonisation is a grassroots thing


5. What projects have students been working on around this at Leicester?

Adnan: This year we had a student leaders conference with our course reps, Equality & Liberation Champions and Union Council Reps who sit on various development networks. As part of the workshops, we had �Decolonising the Curriculum� and what student reps can do on the ground to support this. This involved providing them with case studies and what it is they can ask for in student-staff committees. This includes �have staff reflected upon unconscious bias or bias training?� �What requests can I make about my reading lists?� �is my curriculum confronting any biases - racism, misogyny etc?� �is anti-racist pedagogy embedded within what is being taught?�

As well as that - following the example of UCL and Leeds - we have launched �Why is my curriculum white?� The work around this at Leicester involved bringing in experts from different academic fields to empower students and staff - theoretically and practically. First semester this was quite broad - had a workshop delivered by Fope on decolonising education. We also had a panel/discussion event with Dr Adam Elliott Cooper and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.

This semester, �why is my curriculum white?� has focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM]. Last week we had a workshop delivered by Dr. Furaha Asani - previously an academic at Leicester - aimed at STEM student reps and staff. She spoke about the need for the study of science to incorporate social responsibility. IE, the importance of asking: �what impact does my scientific research have on society and the wider world?� At present there is no discussion of this in the science subjects. If we were to take that lens and look at the subject of eugenics for example, this led to genocide and fascism. If we are gonna take that angle, we are gonna be more conscious of the colonised curricula that is STEM.

Today we are having a panel event on eugenics and scientific racism. Yesterday, we had a �Closing the Gap� away day which the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University and I organised for student reps and learning and teaching directors and heads of school. We had all the change makers on the ground in one room and the Vice-Chancellor was there to open - providing that steer from senior leadership I talked about - while having the grassroots present, all in one room. Fope�s workshop provoked a lot of discussion - the right people were uncomfortable. Like Furaha spoke about, �we need to become comfortable with our discomfort�.


6. In your own experience or through decolonial practices/examples you�ve read about, what would a decolonised university look like? What are some practical ways to have anti-racist pedagogical practise?

Fope: when I talk about decolonisation and I do the workshops I like to preface it with �decolonisation at its root is about dreaming of new futures and new worlds�. So it�s hard to answer what a decolonised university would look like as we have no practical examples. But what we are looking for is a university that is for its students, run by its students and where its most marginalised and their histories and worldviews are centre stage rather than an afterthought. This doesn�t just include adding more black and brown faces to reading lists, it�s about the way we approach education and studying. Decolonisation isn�t just about race or world histories, it�s about the physicality of space - who can enter a space and who can thrive in a space. This speaks to not just BME students being comfortable in lectures, but also disabled students. For example, some disabled students - particularly wheelchair users - can�t even attend their lectures due to the way university spaces have been built.

A decolonised university is about creating a space that acknowledges the cultural and historical context in which the university has been built, a space that is for all of us, including those who up until a couple of decades ago would not be in the room (women, disabled students, BME students, queer students, all of us). And being aware of the history we invoke. 

Practical ways to have anti-racist pedagogical practise: seen examples at Warwick, Leicester and De Montfort (DMU) with �Decolonising DMU�.? Wolverhampton have curriculum consultants and BME student advocates where past students come back and critique what worked and what didn�t - a really good example of anti-racist pegagocial practise.

Chloe: A major part of decolonising pedagogy is to level out that playing field so that those dynamics of the teacher and the student become more open. In a space like that academics and students are able to really challenge a lot of knowledge, which you can�t do in the very strict hierarchies we see in universities now. In terms of pedagogy those consultant roles are making some way towards that. A decolonised university also involves a commitment to looking at, addressing and understanding world history and colonial and race history. A lot of the time universities perpetuate and recreate colonial logics because we don�t talk about that history. Students need to do their own reading and educate themselves about this. It�s important to know the history of our universities and share that with our communities and other students.

Adnan: Fope hit the nail on the head: a decolonised university in the current framework does not exist. The reality is that if we are gonna have a decolonised university it would need to be outside of that. So what does that look like?  As Fope said it�s about reimagining the way we look at the world and also the very way we learn and assess ourselves and academic practise. For example, a lot of students are told that they have to attain a certain level of academic practise, academic tone, but where does this academic tone stem from? Almost always it is befitting of a straight cis-gendered white man. That tone in and of itself is colonised. So we need to change the way we assess ourselves.

Similar to the curriculum consultants at Wolverhampton, at Leicester we saw co-creationism at the heart of shaping and planning course content. Essentially, we paid students who were part-time to work with their schools to hold them to account. This was almost like a mark scheme for an inclusive curriculum. Checking that, not so much are there more black and brown authors, but are they confronting what is the mainstream? Are alternatives being offered? A matter of looking into the content of our resources, which has an impact. No point having people like Savid Javid in my reading list. That�s not a decolonised curricula! Co-creationism is really at the heart of producing anti-racist pedagogy.


7. How can we make sure to include a critical decolonial perspective within our activism? Examples might include climate activism, migrant solidarity, decolonise education. Who should we be learning from and what should we be challenging on campus & beyond?

Fope: a lot of the work I am doing at the moment is about climate justice and how it links to race. Decolonisation isn�t just about race. And to just consolidate it as about anti-racism would be to do a disservice to the history of decolonisation. Alot of scholars like Fanon write about this. It�s about who you are as your identity. And one of the things we learn from the original decolonial education movement in South Africa is that it wasn�t just about the curriculum, it was about the fact that fees were not falling, it was about the fact that a lot of staff were being outsourced. A decolonial theorist talks about how at the heart of the cause is changing the way we perceive the �university� - challenging the patriarchy, challenging the cis-gendered norms, challenging the neoliberal capitalist way it has been marketed. It�s about challenging all of that and working in tandem, it�s about intersectionality.

Specifically on climate change, the understanding that despite the fact climate change will come for us all and affect us all, people that pay the highest price are those in the Global South, even though they�re the ones who have committed the least sins. Britain, we are the largest country per capita, emitting the most greenhouse gases, even though the Global South are the ones paying for it. Two degrees or lower is our �goal� but even at that temperature low-lying Pacific Island States like Tuvalu and Kiribati will still drown. So it�s about challenging those narratives of who we are �saving� and off the backs of who. And that's kind of how decolonisation works within climate activism and climate justice.

This automatically links with migrant solidarity because if your land is burning where do you go? If your home is underwater, if everything you know about your land and land ownership has been taken away, where do you go? You become an economic or climate migrant. Challenging the understanding of migrant justice is really important.

Chloe: one thing I see with recent climate justice movements is that we need to save this �future world� at some point in the near future. This erases the fact that there are people living now who are impacted by the climate crisis. It�s very future orientated and this is because it is often seen through the perspective that is very white and Global North. That gaze. It�s a real issue. I think even in XR�s messaging - which is very based on humanity�s extinction - it ignores the fact that people are already dying.

Adnan: Fope saying it isn�t just a race issue - I completely agree. But the problem with that can be a lot of white people from liberation backgrounds have this perspective of it as well. And the slippery slope with that they�re constantly like �oh, you�re always talking about race, but why not this, why not that?� It�s actually so much more nuanced than that. It was our President, Oge, who always makes the point that when it comes to any liberation movement those that are almost always starting it are black women or black trans women or trans women of colour and if you can eliminate the barriers they face, the most marginalised of us all, then you eliminate the barriers for all of us, and that�s fundamentally what decolonisation is all about. So, I think it�s incumbent on all of us to reframe it in that sense. It�s about eliminating the barriers that oppress us all.


8. How does sustainability and decolonisation intersect, how can we bring this into everyday events that students will engage with  and how do we make our decolonial work  part of the work going on in the climate crisis, especially in Go Green Week?

Fope: it�s really important that we frame the struggle not just within the last twelve years or twenty years or even the last fifty years, but climate justice or climate change is a struggle of the past 500 years. It specifically encompasses imperialism, colonialism and the decisions that were taken by Empires to specifically marginalise and essentially destroy quite a lot of land in the Global South and that - when you frame it over the past 500 years - you see a clearer timeline of how it relates to race, class and the hegemony of the Global North. 

The messaging you hear of 2 degrees and how that still marginalises South Pacific Islands, low-lying states, this is a good way to challenge narratives. Especially on Extinction Rebellion - they�re a great case study on what not to do and how sustainability can be greenwashed, or whitewashed. It�s really great to learn the pitfalls about that: just looking at �Canning Town� tube station �protest�, where they were on top of "he trains. While the response was disappointing in and of itself it shows there was a misunderstanding around who is affected and who the change makers are.