Decolonising the Academy: Responsibility, Representation & Progress

How do we ensure our curriculum is open and inclusive of everybody rather than perpetuating long standing cycles of exclusion? School of History and Cultures second year undergraduate student, Lily Gibbs, invites us to ask searching and sometimes difficult questions?

Close up of African artefact








The words appear on posters throughout the Arts building, but for many staff and students the meaning of the term ‘decolonising the academy’ is not an obvious one. The movement has received increasing attention in recent years as a result of high-profile campaigns like UCL’s #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite and #RhodesMustFall. The latter started in South Africa, but spread to the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, and California at Berkeley. Grace Musila, a prominent professor of literature, postcolonial and gender studies in South Africa describes a “shared struggle to put Africa and Africans on global circuits of intellectual exchange.” Universities across the world are now trying to respond to the increasing pressure to address the bias towards Eurocentricism, but the best way to do this remains unclear. In British universities, the movement towards decolonisation doesn’t just mean that we should include more African voices in academia. It is equally important to recognise and address the continued domination of European voices in certain arenas, and give the dominated the opportunity to be vocal in those same spaces, with the same level of significance and respect given to them. The opinions incorporated into the very structure of our education system impact the world beyond academia, informing each generation as they go on to shape the future of our society

The exclusion of topics, theorists and perspectives according to Eurocentric historical biases is not immediately apparent to a substantial proportion of the university’s population precisely because they are here, meaning that they haven’t been excluded. This results in a large number of students being unable to even imagine the difficulties that those who are excluded face when trying to access higher education and engage in debates about their situation. Inequalities need not necessarily be actively reinforced, but have been built into the structure of academia over centuries and as such exist predominantly in our continued implementation of past assumptions. It is widely acknowledged now that education should be accessible to all people, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexuality. But as the demographics of our student population shifts, our curriculum remains somewhat static. It seems that adjustments to the syllabus typically respond to technological developments, rather than reflecting the shifting social composition and ideology of the societies that they exist within.

Regarding the content of courses themselves, an issue is created by the student perception that universities employ concepts such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ in a way that is more tokenistic than genuine, as institutions pointedly begin advertising themselves as ‘global’ universities. If a ‘global’ university prioritises European academics, content, and perspectives in its teaching, it perpetuates the intellectual authority of Euro-American academics and implicitly ‘white writing’ over the rest of the world. Student unions are thought to be spaces that allow students to express themselves and so run campaigns to promote true diversity and inclusivity. But, this can have the negative effect of placing the burden of challenging and changing the system onto the BME (black and minority ethnic) students and staffs, instead of universities taking responsibility themselves addressing the structural inequalities and biases inherent in university systems. Thus, universities reap the benefits of having a reputation from diversity, without actually doing anything substantial to make their claims a reality.

Decolonising the academy is a pressing issue for universities world-wide and the arts and humanities are generally believed to have the most work to do in order to catch up. Euro-American perspectives dominate topics in which interpretation and social context are focal, such as literature studies, history, and the social sciences. Why is it that one perspective is promoted and assumed to have authority over the rest? Why don’t we learn about non-Euro-American philosophers? Why don’t we learn about the ‘discovery’ of America from the perspective of the people already living there? In some cases, it seems that an assumption has been made that multiple perspectives and interpretations cannot co-exist. The fields have fallen behind in terms of both their course content and their efforts to ensure a diverse body of students. In the School of History and Cultures, this topic is raised frequently, particularly with regards to recruiting more students from BME backgrounds, offering more modules on history outside of Europe, and diversifying reading lists to include people historically excluded on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and class.

The overwhelming issue when it comes to moving forward is that nobody knows how to do so. When trying to incorporate more non-European academics in reading lists, one of the main dilemmas is whether to give students more reading, or substitute out key theorists and seminal texts, which would compromise student experience and education. Despite these challenges, the School is actively working towards dismantling European authority in academia, diversifying the content and authors available to students, and making the university’s population more aware of the need to decolonise academia. Outside higher education, colonial perspectives have been incorporated into the syllabuses of primary and secondary schools. There are discussions to be had about what is and isn’t appropriate for young children to be taught, but there is something particularly unsettling about British involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade being reduced to its abolition, minimalising the trade’s effect upon the estimated 3.4 million slaves carried from Africa to European colonies in British ships. 

Ultimately, it is clear that something must change. It is evident that we need to move away from the tendency to ignore non-European perspectives, histories, experiences and cultures, if we’re claiming to be inclusive and diverse. Conversation is vital to the progress we need to make, because it is only by sharing ideas and information that we can devise a cohesive and effective plan to tackle the deeply-rooted inequalities in our institutions.

Lily Gibbs is a second year undergraduate student studying Anthropology and Classical Literature and Civilisation. She writes for BRIHC in a personal capacity. If you are connected with the School of History and Cultures and are interested in the issues Lily discusses in this piece, please do consider attending our initial discussion meeting about decolonising the School’s curriculum in the Danford Room (Arts 224) on Wednesday 29 November.