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Decolonize education: Are universities listening?

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Harriet Swain :
When students at the University of Cambridge called two years ago for more non-white writers and postcolonial thought to be included in their English curriculum, there was a backlash. Lola Olufemi, who led the call, became the target of online abuse after one report wrongly suggested it meant replacing white authors with black ones. Sam Gyimah, the then universities minister, later appeared to weigh into the debate when he reportedly warned that universities "should be cautious of … phasing out parts of the curriculum that just happen to be unpopular or unfashionable".
But the Cambridge students were part of a broader movement focused on widening the horizons not just of their peers but of their institutions. Campaigns including Rhodes Must Fall (which called for institutions in South Africa and Oxford to remove statues of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes) and Why is My Curriculum White?, launched by students at University College London, argued that only by challenging some of their own traditional assumptions could universities be truly inclusive.
Many institutions have taken this on board. Individual departments at universities including Cambridge, LSE and Birmingham have been reassessing their curriculums and reading lists to make them more inclusive. A new set of resources for module convenors, put together by academics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), shows how far traditional biases limit learning and teaching, and how to make programmes more inclusive. Advance HE, which supports universities' leadership, teaching and equality strategies, will begin a project later this year working with around 10 universities to embed equality into their curriculums; it is already identifying where gaps in attainment between white and black and minority ethnic students start and how best to address them.
"There is a moral element to it," says Pauline Hanesworth, who advises on equality and diversity at Advance HE. "We can get a bad rap sometimes but universities do care about their students and they are aware that there are disparities in their experiences and outcomes." Universities are also under pressure to publish figures on the access, participation and attainment of different groups of students. Meera Sabaratnam, senior lecturer in international relations at Soas and chair of the decolonising Soas working group, says many universities are beginning to focus more on inclusion because these figures make disparities more obvious. The latest figures show that only 63.2% of BME students awarded a degree in England received a first or 2.1 in 2015/16 compared to 78.8% of white students. Broken down further, they reveal that 72% of Chinese students were awarded a top degree, compared to only 50% of black students. Perceptions of what constitutes worthwhile knowledge have also shifted, Sabaratnam argues. She attributes this to a decline in western supremacy, a need to find global solutions to global problems like climate change, and because of higher education expansion. In the UK, this expansion has brought in more students and staff from minority backgrounds. "To them, it's very obvious that the kinds of things taught and ways of teaching them are problematic," she says.
These drivers have led the Open University to identify decolonising the curriculum as one of the top trends likely to influence teaching over the next 10 years. The need for change became apparent to Nona McDuff, director of student achievement at Kingston University, after speaking to students who complained they found case studies unengaging and some of the subjects they studied irrelevant. One, whom McDuff considered a bright and engaged learner, confessed that she had edited material used in one module because she was the first in her family to go to university and did not have the cultural references the terms assumed. "That was an important message - how much we take for granted," says McDuff.
The same message was clear to Annie Hughes, head of academic staff development in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Centre at Kingston, when she led field trips in her discipline of geography. The trips were always to rural parts of the UK and white students were much more likely to have had experience of the types of areas they visited. With increasing numbers of local and commuting students from BME backgrounds joining the course, these differences became hard to ignore. She also realised that many of the fun bits of the field trip revolved around alcohol, which did not suit Muslim students.
This prompted her involvement with McDuff, with the goal of developing an approach covering every aspect of teaching at Kingston - from the concept behind what is taught to content, assessment, feedback and review. The aim is for each of these areas to fulfil three criteria: to be accessible, to allow students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum, and to contribute to a globalised world. The idea is to encourage academics through workshops and discussions to think about how inclusive their teaching really is, in terms of reading lists, activities and assessments. Students are also used as paid inclusive curriculum consultants, with the university keen to use those usually more reluctant to speak up.
Nobody wants every student to come out with the same degree, says Hughes. But they do want academics to reflect on unexplained differences between groups, and to ensure the curriculum is not privileging one group above another.
How do universities prepare graduates for jobs that don't yet exist?
This is not just about different ethnic groups but applies to gender, disability, and sexual orientation too. It's driven not just by universities' sense of fairness but also by political and legislative pressures.
New rules about improving digital accessibility, introduced last September, mean institutions will need to ensure online learning in every discipline is accessible to all students, including those with visual impairments or who are unable to use a mouse. In January the universities minister, Chris Skidmore, called on universities to improve how they accommodate disabled students. He said he expected them to be "ambitious" in their plans, which will be scrutinised by the university regulator the Office for Students, for encouraging more students from all underrepresented groups into higher education.
Birmingham is among the universities to have assessed their curriculums to make them more LGBT inclusive, producing a best-practice guide that encourages measures such as including LGBT case studies and being aware of exclusive language.
Sabaratnam says that Soas's working party aims not just to decolonise the curriculum but to make her institution - and higher education generally - more inclusive, from contracts for cleaning staff to the way academic research is conducted.
Some can find the extent of the changes that need to be made overwhelming, says Hanesworth, but she insists progress can be achieved in small steps. The main thing is to realise that change is needed. "It's not that students have to change to fit us. We have to change to fit them."

(Harriet Swain is a freelance journalist specialising in higher education. Courtesy: The Guardian).

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