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Decolonising the curriculum

Decolonising the curriculum
Doug Stokes
Written by Doug Stokes

Decolonisation may be welcome as part of a free debate, but it must not be enforced. Political endorsement by University leaders is a failure of leadership and crosses a line. The key values of evidence, reason and academic freedom are under threat.

The subject of decolonising the curriculum is once again back in the headlines, following recent comments by the Universities Minister. Advocates of decolonising the curriculum have objected strongly, arguing that Ministers are seeking to dictate the content of courses.

This is wide of the mark. On the one hand, decolonising the curriculum activists claim merely to be inviting a conversation about diversifying the reading lists and material on university courses. On the other hand, activists are working with often compliant university leadership teams to force through radical changes to UK higher education. Since these changes are both illiberal and authoritarian, the Government’s announcements should be seen for what they are: a defence of key academic values, including the primacy of evidence-led research, judgmental rationalism and academic freedom.

First, the decolonising the curriculum movement derives its moral impetus by alleging that UK universities are endemically racist. Fortunately, the evidence paints a much brighter picture. Among UK higher education staff, the difference in proportions between white professors (11.2%) and BAME professors (9.7%) is small, at 1.5 percentage points. Similarly, the UK’s student population is incredibly diverse, with 454,105 ethnic minority students studying in British universities in 2018–19, comprising 24.3% of UK domiciled students. Even at Oxford, traditionally seen as a bastion of exclusivity and privilege, more than 22% of its UK undergraduate students starting in 2019 were from BAME backgrounds, up from 14.5% in 2015. At Cambridge, too, more than one in three of its undergraduate cohort admitted for the academic year 2020/21 are BAME.

Secondly, the claim that Britain’s universities are bastions of colonialism and racism is inaccurate. From Edward Said’s postcolonial critique of Western Orientalism and Marxist critiques of capitalist imperialism, through to the postmodern deconstructions of ‘Western hegemony’ by thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, the humanities and social sciences are replete with critical theories sensitive to questions of epistemology, power and knowledge. If, as is claimed, UK universities are hotbeds of colonialism, where are all of these pro-colonialism courses to be found? Indeed, when Portland State’s Professor Bruce Gilley 2017 peer-reviewed piece, ‘The case for colonialism’, was published, it was almost immediately withdrawn by the publisher, who explained they did so due to ‘serious and credible threats of personal violence’ against the journal’s editorial team.

The reality on UK campuses is that the teaching around Empire and colonialism is very strongly focused on Western empires, for example, the British and now American. This is understandable but threatens to exclude the rich history of non-European empires. For example, the Ottoman Empire, historically hegemonic in large parts of the Middle East and whose colonisation of large swathes of Europe was instrumental in the development of the white slave trade of the Barbary states is curiously absent on most university syllabuses. Similarly, Mohammed Bashir Salau’s incisive accounts, which contribute to developing academic knowledge of the under-studied rich history of the West African Sokoto Caliphate’s black slave plantation complexes, are similarly absent. One could go on, but the point is that the decolonising the curriculum movement is in danger of reproducing a simplistic account of human history of western villains and non-western heroes that once again places Europe as centre stage. Ironically, this form of Eurocentrism threatens to erase non-western colonial projects, cultures and civilisations from history, rather than being seen as purposeful agents in their own right that are intimately bound up with world history and the constitution of the modern world.

Third, and by far most importantly, the Government’s announcements are not about what can and cannot be taught, and more about defending the beachhead upon which the dialectic of academic debate can take place.

Specifically, there is a creeping illiberalism and technocratic managerialism developing within the worldview of UK university leadership teams. This was most clearly captured by UUK’s November 2020 report Tackling racial harassment in higher education, which was designed to help lead radical change across UK universities. In the report, UUK argued that a prevalence of books written by white scholars on reading lists helps ‘perpetuate existing inequalities and are unlikely to reflect the experience or viewpoints of many members of the student and staff body.’ They call upon young undergraduates to audit their professors’ courses to ensure the ‘representation of diversity within materials used in lectures and tutorials.’ In staff training, universities should ‘incorporate the concepts of white privilege and white fragility, white allyship, microaggressions and intersectionality, as well as racialised unconscious bias training.’

Through building an ‘inclusive culture and environment by setting the tone and expectations of student and staff behavior’ senior university managers will inaugurate a truly ‘anti-racist’ university. If resisted by academics or students, those same managers are asked to ‘commit’ to there being ‘consequences’ when the drive for inclusivity is in any way ‘breached’.

As a result, universities are now establishing bureaucratic committees to oversee deep-seated cultural change. Indeed, in one of the UUK’s own case studies from De Montfort University, decolonising the curriculum activists have ‘contributed to relevant committees to ensure that the decolonising agenda is integral to decision-making and strategic planning across the institution’.

Universities must remain at the forefront of defending equality of opportunity, challenging discrimination and widening access to historically disadvantaged groups. However, that noble quest must take as its lodestar the key values of evidence, reason and academic freedom. In so far as decolonising the curriculum is another idea, competing in the academic discourse for academic’s support and adherence, it is to be welcomed as part of a vibrant debate. However, where pressure is applied to academics by Universities UK, vice-chancellors and senior leadership teams to adopt the ideology of decolonising the curriculum as the correct approach to scholarship and teaching, a fundamental line has been crossed. The light of academic freedom has illuminated the paths to human progress: we must not allow it to be extinguished.


First published by the Higher Education Policy Institute


About the author

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes

Doug Stokes is a Senior Advisor at the Legatum Institute, Professor & Head of Research and Development, Strategy and Security Institute (SSI), University of Exeter; The Thomas Telford Associate Fellow at the Council on Geo-Strategy; and an advisory council member of the Free Speech Union.