Decolonisation isn’t as simple as plenty of people suggest

What do “decolonising the curriculum” or “tackling attainment gaps” even mean, asks Sunny Dhillon

Amidst the contemporary culture in which it is praiseworthy to be “woke”, strategy meetings and keynote addresses about the importance of “decolonising the curriculum” and “tackling attainment gaps” are now widespread across the sector.

Many of us have experienced these meetings. At one meeting the chair asked each member of the committee to describe the challenges that the contemporary BAME university student faces. Several (white) speakers said their piece, each allotted time to go into detail.

“Social capital?” I suggested, before leaning forward to elaborate. But I was cut off as the chair moved on to the next speaker – a middle-aged white woman, who rambled for a whole minute without actually saying much of note. The chair’s facilitation was a case of a white, middle class, male academic’s blind spot in their demeanour – ironic, given that that opaqueness occurred during an exercise to hear about the challenges facing BAME students.

Taking the initiatives

These initiatives on “understanding the lived experience” and “taking the attainment [or awarding] gap” are widespread and run in the interests of appealing to different student and staff cohorts, both those existing and potential. Ostensibly, this agenda is a socially progressive move. There is a real need to redress centuries of a Eurocentric whitewashing of knowledge, diversify curricula, and for big shifts in the dissemination of knowledge. And vocal proponents of decolonisation, including staff and students alike, are important voices.

But the way in which decolonisation and redressing attainment gaps are presented is a problem, because the take up of this agenda by those senior within institutions is in danger of looking like a marketing campaign. It is unlikely that a predominantly white, middle to upper class group of senior level administrators are genuinely aghast at the lack of radical BAME voices on the reading lists of their institutions. What they are overwhelmingly concerned with, however, is recruitment – and the associated hunt for simple, marketable solutions.

Given how institutions repeatedly stress the importance of critical thinking, the markedly uncritical uptake and dissemination of all-encompassing taglines associated with decolonising the curriculum, and addressing the BAME attainment gap, is alarming. And a simplistic attempt to understand BAME “student life” or add a few books to a reading list reduce the potential of discussions concerning class, intersectionality, and the neoliberal and marketised landscape within which these taglines appear.

According to data collected by the Department for Work and Pensions between 2015 – 2018, amongst the British Asian Indian community 42 per cent of households have a weekly income of £1000+. Amongst British Asian Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, only 20 per cent of households have a comparable weekly income. It’s thus fair to assume that their social and cultural capital will differ. When speaking about the BAME student experience, how helpful is it to compare Mr Patel, who studied at Eton and went on to the University of Oxford, with Ms Begum, who went to a local comprehensive in Bradford and is at a post-92 HE institution?

Circular arguments

It is possible to argue that the problems of social inequality outlined above are precisely why we need a decolonisation agenda. This is understandable. What remains a problem, though, is the uncritical dissemination of the grounds upon which the agenda is based.

These grounds – concerned as they are with access and completion rates of BAME students – are instrumental, and tied to a neoliberal logic of capital, and the bottom line. We cannot begin to fathom what a genuinely decolonised HE curricula would look or feel like, for we have never known one, let alone a truly decolonised society.

Those truly concerned with decolonisation ought to take a look at Kehinde Andrews’ (a speaker at Wonkfest 2019) Back to Black: Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, or Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s Decolonization is not a metaphor – both of which unsettle the status quo, and are hardly likely to be championed amongst the offices of the nation’s VC’s. Indeed, it’s those positions and hierarchies that they take aim at.

A common thread among Wonkhe posts stresses how universities are inextricably linked to the societies of which they are a part. Shifts in narratives concerning decolonisation – that critically respond to the logic of neoliberalism – could have ramifications upon the ways in which universities are run.

Real decolonisation would involve us, those BAME and otherwise, to lose a number of Eurocentric and liberal privileges. It is unlikely that the contemporary neoliberal university is either suited to, or indeed interested in, such a task – it is too implicated in the legacy of colonisation to do so.

To echo Andrews, what is required is using university forums to encourage community organisation and education in settings outside of the establishment. As Audre Lorde famously remarked: ‘‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’’.

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