Decolonising the Curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?

Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in Social Policy and Education at Birkbeck, discusses the wave of initiatives to decolonise curriculums across Higher Education and how they can affect real change.

A packed meeting of seriously minded individuals from across Birkbeck and beyond met to debate the current wave of initiatives to decolonise the curriculum in Higher Education. Despite heavy snow falling over most parts of the UK, over 100 participants attended determined to hear what the speakers had to say and make their contributions in an important area of equalities policy at a time when issues such as the BME attainment gap is of major concern. For participants, this event was not about jumping on the bandwagon but there was a genuine desire to be fully part of the action for change.

The event entitled: ‘Decolonising the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?’ (A title borrowed from a popular blog of the same name created by Dr Meera Sabaratnam) was held 1 February at Birkbeck and was supported by Professor Karen Wells, the Assistant Dean, Equalities.  The event was initiated and organised by the Decolonising the Curriculum working group, a group which emerged from the Black Women, Womanist, Learning and Higher Education conference held at Birkbeck last year.

At the start of the meeting, Dr Kerry Harman (Birkbeck’s Research Centre for Social Change and Transformation in Higher Education) declared that “student involvement was the crux of the work of the group” and the Birkbeck student’s union representative, Ezimma Chigbo, provided a sharp reminder of the nature of structural racism and how this can impact on students. She argued that students did not just want to hear buzzwords used across the sector, but wanted to see concrete action.

A panel of expert speakers were invited to help Birkbeck shape its role in moving this important issue forward.

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer and Programme Director for Community Development and Development and Globalisation and Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (Department of Geography, Birkbeck) and Co-editor of Religion, Culture and Spirituality in Africa and the African Diaspora (2017), delivered an inspiring speech entitled: ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’. He cautioned that we should not speak about the curriculum without speaking about the institution.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra, Professor of Colonial Studies in the Department of International Relations in the School of Global Studies (University of Sussex) and co-editor of ‘Decolonising the University’ (2018) gave a rousing speech where she spoke of the online resources available to assist us and stipulating the urgent need to refocus and change the dominant narratives.

Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London and author of Decolonising Intervention (2017) gave an uplifting but cautious address, reminding us of the nature of the many pedagogical challenges ahead and ways to move forward.

Some of the questions raised for discussion were:

  • How do we challenge something that has existed for hundreds of years?
  • What do we do about students not engaging with the curriculum? Should we all do a ‘cultural audit’ to ensure we understand one another?
  • More black professors are needed – How do we tackle this?
  • How do we address the question of the attainment gap- could it impact on recruitment and retaining middle-class white students?
  • We need to look at the difference between immigrant and expatriate – socially constructed symbols – wearing a headscarf leading to being characterised as ‘disadvantaged’.
  • We need to make the connection between racism, mental health and depression.
  • Despite ethnic minority staff and students – both home and international students can feel that they don’t belong and don’t finish degrees – a great motivation to look at this further

Responding to these questions and making recommendations, panel members noted that essential reading for lectures and seminars must be addressed (rather than just further reading); a need to take a pressing look at who is appointed, paid and retained across BME British and international staff; the need to ensure a shared understanding of what racism is, the impact of epistemological violence; and the importance of community. They spoke about the need for understanding how university structures work and how the university can be taken out of its ‘bubble’ to allow for real change.

The Decolonising the Curriculum working group is made up of Jan Etienne, William Ackah, Ezimma Chigbo, Elizabeth Charles, Patricia Gilbert and Kerry Harman. They are interested in contributing to scholarship on Decolonising Knowledges, more broadly, and see Decolonising the Curriculum as a key element of that work.

Thank you to SCUTREA (Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults) for their support in this event.

To find out more about the event, listen to the podcast.


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