The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the university of Cape Town ignited a worldwide discussion about decolonising universities and other further education institutions. Now, a new book Decolonising the University brings together resources to help academics and students to resist. Talia Dundoo talks to the book’s editors
In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town demanded the removal from their campus of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a racist imperialist businessman and politician. The emergence of the #RhodesMustFall campaign started a more globally organised movement for the decolonisation of universities across the world, including demands to make the social sciences rethink the content and form of teaching and learning.
As a part of the movement, we welcomed the recently published book Decolonising the University, a collection of “resources for students and academics to challenge and resist coloniality inside and outside the classroom”(1)
The book consists of a collection of twelve essays, under three themes: first, Contexts: Historical and Disciplinary looks at what makes the curriculum ‘colonised’ and where the decolonising movements have emerged. The second part of the book Institutional Initiatives presents the ways in which university decolonisation campaigns have taken place across the world. Finally, Decolonial Reflections consists of thoughts on the practices and challenges that decolonising practitioners have faced. The entire collection is written in an accessible way, for anyone who would like to further understand normative historical narratives and how knowledge can be decolonised (2).
“I tried different ways of organising the module until eventually I turned it into ‘Race and the Making of the Modern World’. Renaming the module, but focusing on the same key concepts, enabled me to start with the historical (global) processes of dispossession, enslavement, appropriation and extraction”
As a part of a book launch event at Goldsmiths (University of London) at the end of 2018, we were joined by two of the book’s editors: Prof Bhambra and Dr Kerem, with whom we explored the themes of the collection and the difficulty and the importance of decolonisation. With reference to two themes in the book, we asked Prof Bhambra to give us a deeper insight into what academics and students can do to contribute to the work of decolonising the university.
We started by asking the obvious question: “What have academics like yourself been doing to decolonise the curriculum?”
Prof Bhambra: “In the first couple of years of teaching, I was asked to teach a module on Modernity and Globalisation. My PhD research had just been published as Rethinking Modernity and I knew that I couldn’t just teach that module as it had always been taught – in terms of a standard account focused on the French and industrial revolutions – I would have to incorporate my research on colonialism, enslavement, and imperialism into it. This took a while as it’s not easy just rewriting a module.
I tried different ways of organising the module until eventually I turned it into “Race and the Making of the Modern World”. Renaming the module, but focusing on the same key concepts, enabled me to start with the historical (global) processes of dispossession, enslavement, appropriation and extraction and examine how these had created the modern world within which we live.”
Decolonising The University
In addition to the adapting different modules is an important part in how students can learn about decolonisation, student voices are an important force in decolonising the university. So, we asked: “What is the role of student unions and students more generally in decolonising the university?”
Prof Bhambra: “Students have been central to making visible the inequalities that continue to mark university life – whether that’s in terms of asking “why is my curriculum white?” to raising issues of racial inequality in terms of employment practices or then, more recently, raising concerns about the BME attainment gap(3) for minority ethnic students.
“Decolonising the university is not only about taking down statues and other symbols of colonialism, although this is important. It includes changing the structures as well as the practices of the university, redesigning curricula as well as challenging disciplinary narratives”
There is no gender gap or class gap and so the fact that there is a race gap in attainment suggests that universities are actively producing racial inequality – not simply replicating the inequalities that exist more broadly within society. It is important for students and student unions to hold universities to account for this inequality and to work towards meaningful change within the institutions.”
In Decolonising the University, the editors have put together a vibrant collection which allows the reader to reflect on, as well as to think of ways in which they can participate in the decolonisation of the university. Decolonising the university is not only about taking down statues and other symbols of colonialism, although this is important. It includes changing the structures as well as the practices of the university, redesigning curricula as well as challenging disciplinary narratives.
Importantly, our conversation also showed how powerful student voices and activism can be within decolonising work. The BME attainment gap demonstrates how universities’ colonial foundations are failing Black and ethnically minoritised students. For too long, the university has not only replicated the inequalities of our society but has also produced it – and what’s worse is that we are paying for this re/producing of inequities. Holding the university to account for the many ways in which it sustains inequality and injustices is critical in our fight to decolonise the university.
- Decolonising the University Edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu
- Priyamvada Gopal, Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures, University of Cambridge(2018).
- Nusconnect.org.uk. (2018). Attainment Gap 2017 @ NUS connect.
Talia Dundoo is completing an MA in Race, Media and Social Justice at Goldsmiths’, University of London.