‘Don’t diversify, decolonise’: How students are at the forefront of demands for educational reform

As images of anti-racist protests surrounding the state of British higher education have proliferated in the media, what it means to ‘decolonise’ has been obscured. Student movements like the NUS’s ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ and #LiberateMyDegree remind us to look beyond tabloids’ divisive and problematic portrayal of decolonisation – a radical programme which operates on the epistemological and structural levels. By illuminating universities’ historical coloniality, Eurocentric curricula, and lack of diversity at all levels, these movements offer a powerful alternative paradigm for education which focuses on empowerment rather than evasion.


Rhodes Must Fall Oxford

‘Don’t diversify, decolonise’ was the authoritative phrase painted on Oxford students’ placards amidst the Rhodes Must Fall  campaign. Catalysed by student activism in South Africa in 2015, this protest movement used the display of colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College as a platform to contest their institution’s pervasive racism. This aligned with the transformative definition of decolonisation as the centring of colonialism, empire, and racism as key shaping forces in the world.


Despite these powerful goals, media responses demonised the students and ridiculed their objectives. For example, Harry Mount in The Telegraph lambasted students’ ‘hypersensitive, unsophisticated, educated [attitudes]’ and portrayed the movement as an effort to distort history to suit a ‘woke’ agenda. This fundamentally misconstrues the fact that protestors were seeking to change the way we think about colonialism’s historical legacies and problematise the celebration of a figure who benefitted from African dispossession and exploitation.


By definition, these protests concerned much more than the removal of a statue or the alteration of reading lists; they offered a vision of a HE landscape in which alternative forms of knowledge are valued and forms of structural discrimination dismantled. The RMFO Campaign can thus be seen as a symbolic case study which encompasses the three central components of decolonisation: iconography, curriculum, and representation.


Problematic pasts

In the current climate of neoliberal competition, universities are portrayed as neutral business-like institutions competing for student ‘customers’. This mechanical dynamic means that problematic historical lineages are effaced. From Bristol University buildings featuring slave traders’ names to the unexplained display of colonial possessions in university museums, the iconography of HE institutions exposes the reality of their coloniality. Such symbols remind BME staff and students of their ‘otherness’ and reinforce the fallacy of institutional neutrality. Campaigns like the RMFO shine a light on these issues and force the university to engage in a dialogue about their origins – a necessary step in enhancing the inclusivity of HE spaces.


Eurocentric curricula

Epistemological questions get to the heart of decolonisation’s main imperatives. ‘Why Is my Curriculum White?’ (2014) originated in a video by UCL students which problematised the institution’s lack of awareness concerning the reproduction of white supremacy via a biased curriculum. Not only were the authors virtually all ‘white’, but their ideas were ‘white’ too, featuring Eurocentric claims and Orientalist assumptions about the supremacy of Western science and objectivism. Student campaigns have forced universities to expand their reading lists to include more BME authors, but this tokenistic inclusion of scholars like Du Bois fails to fulfil decolonisation’s demands. With 42% of Black students claiming that the curriculum does not reflect issues of diversity, equality, and discrimination, we need to extend current reforms by reformulating the canon and diversifying knowledge production. This involves asking uncomfortable questions, valuing alternative knowledges, and questioning the narrowness of existing curricula.


Representation and institutional racism

Following on from this is the ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’ UCL panel discussion, which aligns with decolonisation’s structural concern with representation and racism. In the ‘crisis of race’ in British HE, BME scholars are not only under-represented but marginalised by the dominance of white cultural capital within academia. With this feeling of being ‘outsiders on the inside’, and 58% of academics claiming to have experienced racism, over 80% of BME researchers consider moving overseas to enrich their prospects. This serves to reinforce the lack of diversity amongst academic staff, reflected in the statistic that only 0.6% of professors in the UK are Black.


Racial inequalities are paralleled in the student body, with minoritized students forced to contend with the microaggressions that accompany entering spaces of white privilege. This is particularly evident in Britain’s elite institutions; while 8% of the 2018 cohort at non-Russell Group universities were Black, this figure was only 2% at Oxbridge. The 13% national attainment gap between white and BME students attests to the failure to support the latter group and make the university a place where everyone can thrive. ‘I, too, am Oxford’ (2014) is one example of students drawing attention to the racism in their institution and asserting their right to belong.


Encompassing both material and intellectual demands made by a multitude of actors, decolonisation is not a monolithic movement. In the UK, students have united under the banner of decolonisation to hold their institutions accountable for their repeated evasion of colonialism, race, and racism – symbolised in the fact that more universities hold an award for the Hedgehog Friendly Campus Initiative than the Race Equality Charter. While student demands are partially responsible for recent progress in decolonisation – from Oxford’s return of colonial objects to UCL’s investigation into its role in eugenics – more needs to be done to challenge our institutions. Armed with a student body actively demanding openness on these issues, it seems there is hope for the future of decolonisation in British HE. 


Featured image: Polina Zimmerman on Pexels.

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