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Student-led event seeks to demystify decolonisation

The King’s Decolonising Working Group (Decol) held an event aimed at dispelling some of the dominant myths about decolonisation in Higher Education (HE).

Decol Team
The EIS Decol Team. Picture: ZOOM

It saw speakers from South Africa, which has been the forefront of movements for decolonising the university, and from UK HE institutions come together to discuss their own experiences and the challenges ahead.

We were particularly happy that students and colleagues from the University of Hertfordshire were able to participate, as they have been conducting innovative attempts to decolonise the curriculum and close the BAME attainment gap for many years. Thanks to our previous student co-ordinator Cage Boons, who was a BAME ambassador at Herts, the Herts student-led experience of decolonisation was a major inspiration for Decol, a working group that now spans across seven faculties across the university.

Chaired by two of our student facilitators, Martina Ciravegna and Vaishnav Rajkumar, the event was attended by more than 300 students and academics from across the world. The discussion was varied, productive, and linked up different struggles and inititatives in and around Higher Education in the UK and abroad.

The event took place on the same day the controversial Sewell report was released by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Many participants strongly disagreed with the report’s attempt to underplay the pervasiveness of institutional racism and the need to decolonise UK education and society at large. There was a consensus that the report did not fully understand what decolonising the curriculum actually means in practice.

Contra Sewell, we agreed that decolonisation in HE is not about the ‘banning’ of ‘white’ authors but is rather a struggle for the active transformation of the university. We cannot limit our imagination to changing a few reading lists or to attending diversity and inclusion initiatives, as important as these are. We must ensure that we link up with the struggles against racism, sexism, precarity, securitisation, imperialism, and more. Just as the university does not exist in a vacuum, but rather builds on centuries of colonialism, our struggles can not succeed alone, isolated from each other.

We were honoured that Terri Maggott (student activist and former president of the University of Johannesburg’s student representative council) was able to join us and tell us about her experience in the 2015 Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement in South Africa and its links with the Rhodes Must Fall movement.

The biggest student-led movement after Soweto, FMF was led by the first born-free generation after apartheid. It pointed to the fallacy of the Rainbow Nation and was part of a longer historical trajectory to decolonise South African society. The movement used a variety of tactics – including sit-ins, marches, shutdowns, and art installations – and raised crucial questions about the impact of colonialism, neoliberalism and capitalism on South African higher education, including gender relations. It achieved some concrete victories: fees weren’t raised, some lecture halls were re-named and many universities made at least symbolic commitment to decolonisation. But both universities and the state cracked down on protesters, increasing police presence, and student surveillance.

After Terri’s inspiring presentation, Professor Helen Barefoot spoke about her work as the founder of the BAME ambassador programme at the University of Hertfordshire. This programme adopts a comprehensive approach and involves students and staff at all levels in reviewing the curricula as well as assessment, pedagogical methods, and admissions. It aims at decolonising all of these practices to make them appropriate to the 21st century and tackle institutional racism and inequality in all sectors (STEM in particular needs revision). Danecia Barrett then spoke of her role as a BAME ambassador. She explained the importance of a comprehensive approach to the BAME experience and argued that this kind of institutional support can really make a difference for black and ethnic minority students.

We then listened to Dr Jayaraj Sundaresan, a member of the Decolonising LSE Collective, who spoke about some of the structural difficulties facing decolonisation in HE. Jayraji highlighted the importance of building networks of solidarity that can unsettle settled arrangements and achieve concrete changes in working arrangements, ideologies and practices, like the imposition of biometric ID cards to LSE cleaners. Also Anoop Sindhu, a student at Goldsmiths, strongly argued for the need for students to link up with the Goldsmiths UCU strike and with cleaners and security staff. She also said it is essential to break down Eurocentric narratives and make decolonisation relatable through storytelling.

Events like this give us an opportunity to share ideas, tactics, and reflections of what decolonisation means to each of us, and the praxis we undertake to realise that vision. – Tadiwanashe Ndlovu and Maurico Barboas Fortuna

We then heard from two organisers from Goldsmith’s Anti-Racist Action (GARA). Hafsa Haji, a student from GARA, explained how racism on campus — specifically, international student’s SU campaign materials were defaced with racist graffiti — and the lack of institutional response on the part of Goldsmiths were catalyst of the 137-day long occupation of Deptford Town Hall, a symbol itself of British imperialism. The occupiers set up a list of demands linking student experience, academic structures and workers’ conditions. Dr Akanksha Mehta then presented the 12 demands of the occupation: about surviving, precarity, local community and critiques of the university. Occupiers created a parallel space of learning and mutual collective care. Goldsmiths committed to some of their demands but also took the occupiers to court.

And of course, they didn’t hesitate to declare to stand in solidarity with BAME students during the BLM movement in the summer.

We then heard from students from our own King’s Decol Working Group. First, Hélène Ramaroson emphasized the importance of projects like Decol that address the problems of the vast majority of students – and students’ learning conditions, she stressed, are closely linked to staff working conditions too. In her view, students should be at the centre of activities of curriculum revision and the university should offer reparatory bursaries to black students given how it benefitted from colonial wealth. Hélène also problematised the tendency to put diverse modules as optional rather than core, which pushes these issues to the periphery.

Lauren Fernandes then recounted the history of the Decol group and presented the work of the History Decol group that culminated in a report from module audits and student surveys. Lauren also spoke about Decol activities during the UCU strike in February and March 2020, including our inspiring rally and march on International Women’s Day. They also presented King’s Students and Staff Against Securitisation (KSSAS), a new initiative meant to raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of securitisation and Prevent on international and Muslim students. Despite COVID-19, Lauren concluded, five student groups wrote reports with recommendations for their departments: it is so important for students to be involved in this kind of projects at King’s and elsewhere.

The Q&A session started by discussing on how we can build safe, secure campuses, especially for minority students, without securitisation, surveillance and policing. Interventions highlighted how important it is, in order to achieve safety on campus, to connect student success and support, to tackle the intersections of class, race and gender, and to address structural inequalities via collective action. We were very proud that, during the 2020 UCU strikes, one of our Decol members organized the teach-out “Chinese People are not a virus: Racism is”, which inspired this statement then supported by several UCU branches across the country.

We also considered what decolonisation means in Britain vis-à-vis ex-colonised societies like South Africa: in Britain colonial wealth played an important role in the foundation of universities and these are still in a strong relationship with the military and the arms trade. Contributions highlighted the pervasiveness of empire in Britain, the importance of non-western epistemologies and of putting anti-imperialism at the core of decolonial critiques.

What does decolonisation mean for us at KCL?

What clearly emerged from this meeting is that decolonisation in HE first means giving students and staff who experience discrimination, institutional racism and exclusion a voice and ability to change the institutional structures and processes that exclude and discriminate against them and others. When successful, this is a collective process that empowers students and gives them a say about what they are taught and how. It’s about creating a community of care, as much as it is about teaching and knowledge-production. The central themes that arose included the importance of internationalism, how decolonisation should not have a simple, isolated definition, but rather a contested definition including critiques of imperialism and capitalism, and the importance of decolonising not only content but also the very process of knowledge production, in universities and society at large.

Events like this give us an opportunity to share ideas, tactics, and reflections of what decolonisation means to each of us, and the praxis we undertake to realise that vision. We all stepped away from it having gained new insights, new perspectives, and something to ruminate on.

In this story

Lucia Pradella

Lucia Pradella

Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy

John Narayan

John Narayan

Senior Lecturer in European and International Studies