By Dr Dominik Jackson-Cole SFHEA
What is decolonisation of the curriculum?
Decolonisation can be defined as “the active resistance against colonial powers, and a shifting of power towards political, economic, educational, cultural, psychic independence and power that originate from a colonised nation’s own indigenous culture. This process occurs politically and also applies to personal and societal psychic, cultural, political, agricultural, and educational deconstruction of colonial oppression” (Advance HE, 2021). Within this area, decolonising of the curriculum can be seen as a complex phenomenon and process, with multiple definitions and approaches. Meera Sabaratnam (2019) from SOAS University of London argues that decolonisation has to start with an acknowledgement “that academic knowledge has been profoundly shaped by a colonial past/ present”. The University of Sheffield defines decolonisation of the curriculum as “an ongoing process which critically assesses and contextualises the arguments and assumptions of Western thought within all disciplines” (University of Sheffield, 2021). Furthermore, proponents of decolonisation have argued that it is not about replacing or erasing the Western cannon but about academic honesty, integrity and rigour which can enrich the academic practice (SOAS, 2018).
Rationale for the study
Calls to decolonise the curriculum have gained significant attention thanks to student activism following the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa, SOAS Student Union’s call for decolonisation or the occupation of Goldsmiths University London (HEPI, 2020). In June 2020, the Guardian conducted a Freedom of Information study showing that only one fifth of institutions HEIs engaged in decolonisation. While HEPI (2020) argued that decolonisation was a vital process for the improvement of curricula, pedagogy and student wellbeing, a year later it found that the general public (as opposed to students) were more likely to support diversification than decolonisation of the curriculum (HEPI, 2021).
This research is motivated by an interest in understanding the position on decolonisation in the UK higher education sector. It aims to provide a “pulse check” of the decolonisation activity, provide some examples of good practice, as well as identify barriers around the development of this work in the sector.
Methodology and analysis:
Desk research for this paper was conducted in August 2021 and collected information from two sources. Firstly, a Google search looking for evidence of decolonisation was performed on 147 UK universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) who were at least one of the below:
Advance HE UK member,
Russell Group member,
Million Plus member,
Institute members were not included in the analysis.
Two terms used in Google search for each HEI were: [name of institution] decolonise curriculum AND [name of institution] inclusive curriculum.
Secondly, a survey was shared via JISC mail to members of the HERAG and HE-EON JISC mailing groups. There were 26 HEIs that responded to the survey. It asked about the state of decolonisation work at the institution, online presence of this work, as well as examples of good practice and barriers.
Triangulation of the two data collection methods indicated that a Google search was able to accurately portray the extent of activity at 19 out of 26 HEIs that responded to the survey. In other words, Google search was only 73% accurate. Therefore, a major caveat in this paper is that there may be much more activity within institutions that is not easily accessible or searchable for external actors.
Findings were categorised into three groups by activity levels: limited to no activity, localised activity and institution wide activity. A numerical analysis by group membership and type of activity was also conducted.
Limited or no decolonising activity:
There were 36 institutions in this category. For 32 institutions the Google search did not come back with any results of decolonising activity. Additionally, there were four universities that made a statement in support of Black Lives Matter in June 2020 including commitment to decolonisation, but no follow through activity could be found. There was one institution which actually omitted (or perhaps removed) decolonisation from their May 2021 update on anti-racism, despite having it in their initial June 2020 anti-racism statement.
However, the institutions with limited or no decolonising activity often had commitment to inclusive teaching using discourses of inclusivity, diversification or internationalisation of the curriculum. Five institutions within this group produced inclusive curriculum design toolkits or checklists, which mentioned principles of decolonisation, such as de-centring Eurocentric ways of knowledge as one of the ways to diversify the curriculum, but fell short of actually calling it decolonisation.
In their response to JISC inquiry, two institutions indicated early stages of work and one even having an institution-wide working group dedicated to decolonisation, but no such activity could be found on their websites. It is therefore possible that some of the institutions within this group are at more advanced levels of activity, but there are no external manifestations of this work yet.
Additionally, it is worth noting that while at some institutions there might have been no obvious decolonising activity stemming from the institutions themselves, often there were statements from student unions calling on these institutions to begin this work.
Localised decolonising activity
Another group of universities were universities in which there was some evidence of decolonising the curriculum. This came in three ways: individuals working on decolonisation, organisation of events dedicated to decolonisation, and local initiatives, such as sustained programmes and working groups for decolonising the curriculum at school/department/ faculty level. Within this group there was no clear evidence of any institution-wide activity.
There were 32 institutions that were classified in this category. Activity here ranged from individual academics writing blogposts or publishing papers about their experiences of decolonising their practice, individual modules within programmes concentrating on decolonisation, and events, such as seminars/ webinars and conferences dedicated to decolonising the curriculum. One school produced a toolkit on decolonising media, communications and sociology. At two institutions there were funded PhD opportunities to research issues of decolonisation of the curriculum.
In this group there were 79 HEIs in which there was evidence of institution-wide initiatives, including, for example, institutional working groups, programmes or policies. However, the level of engagement and the type of initiatives varied greatly within this group.
The work was situated in various institution-wide departments. Out of the 79 HEIs there was clear evidence of the decolonisation work sitting within the area of learning and teaching enhancement units at 35 institutions, within library services at 18 institutions, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at five institutions, and in a widening participation unit at one institution. Among the aforementioned institutions there were six where the work was held in more than one of these units.
The range and scope of the activities varied significantly. At one end of the spectrum there were three institutions which supported decolonisation through libraries providing links to external resources on decolonisation, with no other institution-wide activity being visible. There were also further 35 HEIs which had some institution-wide activity such as CPD events, conferences, webinars, toolkits and guides. Additionally, most universities with institution-wide initiatives had also evidence of strong local (department/ school/ faculty) activities and work of individual academics.
Another 35 HEIs had institution-wide decolonisation groups. These ranged from groups taking a form of or resembling communities of practice, to working or steering groups with action plans written into learning and teaching enhancing activity, library activity or EDI activity.
As many as 14 institutions out of the 79 in this group had clear evidence of decolonisation being institutionalised by policies or written into strategies, be it learning and teaching strategies or even institutional strategies. However, there was one institution where decolonisation featured as part of their EDI strategy in 2018/19, but in their July 2021 update on anti-racism and curricular review decolonisation was not explicitly mentioned. That is despite decolonising principles being easily identifiable in the institution’s approach to the curriculum review.
There were 10 institutions in this group that offered toolkits dedicated to decolonisation or inclusive curriculum design toolkits that included elements or principles of decolonisation. These ranged from simple lists of external decolonisation resources, to comprehensive institution and discipline specific guides. Additionally, there were at least five institutions which had a form of curriculum consultancy scheme, whereby students were being remunerated to co-create or review curricula from a decolonisation and/or inclusivity perspective.
Highlighted activities and initiatives:
There were several activities which stood out as particularly worth mentioning. It is important to note that there may be other interesting and noteworthy initiatives around the sector, however, they were not easily identifiable through Google/website search.
Collaboration: Five Scottish universities were involved in an inter-university decolonising cluster, Decolonising in the time of pandemic, formed to meet the challenges of decolonisation and the changes to the sector caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Leadership and spotlight: University of Sheffield made decolonisation one of their key priorities in 2020-21, University of Leeds also made decolonisation one of their key principles; in early 2021 York St John University advertised a job for the Head of Teaching and Learning Enhancement which focus on decolonisation.
Research and research pipeline: Queen’s University Belfast and Loughborough University offered funded PhD starting in 2021 focused specifically on the decolonisation of the curriculum, University of Edinburgh offered decolonisation postdoctoral fellowships, University of Bath and Leeds Beckett University have research centres dedicated to decolonisation
Barriers, challenges and difficulties:
The above analysis, based on information available online, indicates that the picture of decolonisation in the sector is complicated, ranging from minimal or no activity to very active, institutionally sanctioned engagements. Another challenge may be that the work seems to be dispersed across various departments. It also often lacks coherent online presence. While most universities embrace the discourse of decolonisation a few seem to prefer the language of inclusivity or diversification, and there is potential evidence of a small number of universities distancing their work from decolonisation.
Additionally, five out of 26 institutions that responded to the survey highlighted several barriers. These were around the lack of expertise among faculty and lack of understanding of broader disciplinary consequences due to novelty of the phenomenon. Some respondents mentioned that they came across some hostility toward the idea of decolonisation, framed around academic freedom and disciplinary traditions. Other barriers included ad hoc nature of activities rather than a holistic approach, stemming from a lack of a shared understanding or clear definitions of decolonisation and a lack of resourcing such as time allocations for curriculum review.
Decolonisation by institutional groups:
The below table shows to what extent institutions engage in decolonisation work within their group. Groups chosen for this analysis were based on their relationship with Race Equality Charter (REC) and membership of a mission group.
From the table above it can be observed that as many as 54% of all researched institutions had a form of institution-wide decolonising activity, with 28% of all the institutions having an institution wide group dedicated to decolonising the curriculum and/or having decolonisation as part of their policies or strategies. A further 24% of institution also exhibited decolonising activity at a local level (departmental/ school/ faculty). This suggests that the sector has progressed significantly since June 2020 when a Freedom of Information enquiry by the Guardian registered only 19% of institutions as dedicated to decolonising the curriculum, and only 9% doing it at an institutional level.
As can be expected, institutions that were signed up to REC or holding Bronze REC award were more likely to engage in this work than those that did not sign up to the Charter. Bronze REC holders were also the most likely to have an HEI wide group dedicated to decolonisation and/or policies and various strategy commitments to decolonisation. Russell Group universities were more likely to engage in decolonisation than Million Plus universities.
The report demonstrates a clear rapid increase of decolonisation activity across the UK higher education sector. For institutions that wish to support this work further the following considerations are recommended:
Resourcing the decolonisation work – this can include creation of specific roles with focus on decolonisation of the curriculum, as well as providing appropriate time for the review of the curriculum in workload allocation models for individual teaching colleagues, teaching and learning coordinators and/or teaching and learning enhancement colleagues.
Systematising the work by creating working or steering groups that can oversee the development of decolonisation, creating action plans and creating or updating relevant policies. This work should be carefully crafted taking into consideration specificities of academic disciplines, local contexts and academic freedom, among others.
Systematising presence of decolonisation work online. There may be a lot of good practice being done which is currently not shared. Having consistent web presence could help institutions share progress.
Investigating the possible instances of moving away from decolonisation. Given the different views on decolonisation (with student population supporting it, while wider/ general public preferring ‘diversification’) institutions as well as sector bodies should investigate the relations between diversification and decolonisation and the utility of explicitly naming decolonisation work.
Advance HE (2021) Race Literacy Glossary. Call It Racism. Resources for the Tackling Racism on Campus project | Advance HE (advance-he.ac.uk)
HEPI (2020) Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities. HEPI_Miseducation_Debate-Paper-23_FINAL.pdf
HEPI (2021) Views on decolonising the curriculum depend on how changes are presented. Views on decolonising the curriculum depend on how changes are presented - HEPI
Sabaratnam, M. (2019) Inclusive Teaching and Learning at SOAS: Decolonisation. [presentation] London: SOAS University of London.
SOAS (2018) Decolonising SOAS: Learning and Teaching Toolkit. London: SOAS, University of London. Microsoft Word - Decolonising SOAS - Learning and Teaching Toolkit May 2018-1.docx