In 2018, we set out to address the outcome and attainment gap between white and minority ethnic students at our university.
This evolved into a five-year staff-student collaboration that is now working towards a completely decolonised curriculum in Social Work which no longer privileges white Anglo-centric approaches to learning and practice and instead draws equally on models from the Global South.
Our wholesale strategy focuses on degree outcome gaps, theoretical models, curriculum, staffing, and research. The aim is to create not just an equitable experience for all students but an anti-racist university experience for all students.
As staff, our experiences of overcoming structural barriers when entering academia from social work practice created specific resonance to inform this approach.
Our core themes were inhabitation, empowerment, attainment, and staff strategy.
The student advisory group we created, The Global Majority Collective (GMC), has a meaningful role that extends significantly beyond current initiatives to involve students in developing an anti-racist approach. Where we had previously relied on generic student feedback through the student rep system, we specifically listened to students impacted by anglocentrism. The members are paid for their expertise, and as we act upon their feedback, trust has grown between the student members and staff – who the students help to grow as white accomplices.
We also developed a strategy using reflective practice, anti-racist action planning, consulting experts by experience, and bringing advanced students on as staff. Our recruitment approach now considers the range of different lived and practice experiences of anti-racism, and we are collaborating with Dr Prospera Tedam to provide ongoing staff training.
It was vital that we drew upon our practitioner backgrounds to continue to support one another when we made mistakes. This approach gathered momentum after receiving some negative social media comments about our early work – namely, that our top-down approach of not involving enough students from ethnic backgrounds in the design of our work presented a non-diverse perspective.
Officially addressing these comments helped us to see students as core partners in developing the initiative. As part of this, about 25 students met fortnightly, led by a student, to identify and prioritise anti-racist course development opportunities.
From their advice, our team further decolonised content and assessment and trained external contributors to our programme in unconscious bias and microaggressions. The current leader of the Global Majority Collective said this
opened a dialogue to create an anti-racist university experience. As a black student, I’ve seen an implementation of many issues we reported.
We worked in partnership with staff on the Social Work programme at Hope Africa University, Burundi, to develop a decolonised programme which included the indigenous models and African paradigms Ubuntu (“I am because we are”) and Ikibiri (solidarity). These paradigms speak to collectivistic values based on coming together to succeed – which resonates with our ethos.
Through our team continuing professional development (CPD) events, we learned about Mbembe’s South African concept of ‘a place to inhabit’ – which overlaps with the work done in the UK on the importance of belonging for students in higher education – and the MANDELA model of supporting students and developing strategies to achieve equity for all students. The model involves Making time, Acknowledging Needs of this specific group, identifying Differences, Education, Life experiences and Age. These concepts now inform and are embedded in our approach – previously dominated by Anglo-centric theories and paradigms.
This new approach places student voices and their need for self-determination, as conceptualised by African models, at the heart of a staff-student collective approach to learning and teaching.
And when soliciting student feedback about the use of the MANDELA model as a method of structuring support for black African students whilst, on placement, students advocated for us to extend the use of this model to support all student-staff interactions, e.g. in academic advising sessions, which we have now implemented. Which demonstrates its success.
As a predominantly white team teaching a more diverse student body, we had to develop our authenticity through reverse mentoring and accept our privilege, journeying from defensiveness to acceptance.
This has been significantly challenging. Learning was painful and bruising. But inviting and addressing critique from students positions them as core partners. We learnt that it was far too easy to both overestimate our understanding of issues of race and racism and underestimate the associated complexities of our teaching and learning environment. Our discomfort and the disruption when we got it wrong were the drivers that helped us transform the direction of the work.
Our student buddying programme with our Burundian partners further facilitates a ‘place to inhabit’ by validating cultural differences. It enables all students to develop knowledge of racial inequalities and take part in our decolonised curriculum. One GMC student in the project said that it showed our ‘dedication to support students and remove racial inequalities’.
Data regarding our GMC students’ learning experience demonstrates that they feel they are excelling academically. We recently surveyed all our students about their academic self-efficacy, whereby 1 = low and 10 = high. GMC students scored higher than white students (8.4 versus 7.28). In explaining their scores, GMC students referred to inclusive course content (a ‘place to inhabit’) and their sense of being accepted, giving feedback such as “I have a positive sense of belonging, as I feel like I have been valued as a student”; “I feel I can identify with much of the content”; and “I’ve had a really good experience, I feel as though I am meeting my full potential.”
And the student leader of the Global Majority Collective summarised
the platform to advocate[d] on behalf of the students and [stood] with me on highlighting the disparities around anti-racist practice within social work.
You can find more information on our work here.