UK Establishment resisting attempt to ‘Decolonise Curriculum’


During a recent visit to City University in London as Patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Meghan Markle voiced support for efforts to “decolonise the curriculum” and disbelief at the lack of diversity in university professorships.

Beyond the usual hysteria about the Duchess’ “political action” there has been broader backlash to the campaign, ranging from fears about a system of racial hiring quotas to denial that racism is a pervasive force in education at all.

Considering this uproar, it is worth asking: what does “decolonising the curriculum” mean, and why has it been so divisive?

As Dr. Meera Sabaratnam, a lecturer in International Relations and Chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group, recently explained in the Times:

The project of decolonising education argues that we should seek to overcome the limits of what the West has historically imagined about itself. Decolonising the curriculum is thus a thoroughly pro-intellectual endeavour that means examining multiple accounts of an issue, looking at processes in their global and historical contexts, writing in the lives, narratives and knowledges that have been written out or discounted, and confronting the contestations that this produces.

Substantively, this entails including more diverse voices on syllabi, and thinking critically about why the demographics of British university faculty bear little resemblance to British society.

These seem to be relatively tame goals: few would argue against greater inclusivity and rigour.

Still, there has been significant resistance to the campaign from many establishment quarters.

In an interview on Britain’s flagship political radio programme, the ‘Today on Radio 4’, Dr. Sabaratnam was met by an extremely unsympathetic interviewer - John Humphrys. The seasoned and respected Humphrys, desperately struggled to understand the concept that many of our academics viewed the world through a Eurocentric, white privileged position.

Badgering Dr Sabaratnam, Humphries said, ‘Oh come on, what professors today believe that slavery was a good thing? Sabaratnam explained that many of our western revered thinkers, such as John Locke did think slavery was part of man’s natural order, and it makes a difference how we view them and their work. Worse still when she mentioned that universities need to be more representative, like including more women, Humphries side stepped the gender parity to ask without any hint of irony, ‘oh really, are you saying that white professors do not offer a balanced narrative when it comes to race?

The reality of course is that university professors can be either unsympathetic to racism, not fully understand and or gloss over uncomfortable history in the classroom or lecture hall. Worse still there are many academic views, which in turn influence the publics’ view that while the British Empire had its downside - slavery, colonialism - overall it was a positive endeavor.

The disbelief that there could be another narrative (whether it’s genuine or, as I suspect, purely performative) highlights the difficulty of fighting for a diverse, equitable public sphere when a large portion of the public sees no problem with the status quo. How do you “sell” a campaign for diversity, justice, and truth when a large portion of the population doesn’t see how it will benefit them, or more troublingly, see a need for a campaign at all?

I believe that the “decolonise the curriculum” campaign will prevail; in the UK and abroad, advocates for diversity and inclusivity have been increasingly successful. But ultimately this campaign and the backlash are not just about including black authors on a syllabus or increasing the number of BME lecturers. We are approaching a critical moment in the struggle for equality wherein we have the data and the means to begin closing gaps and ensuring equity, but the question of the political will to do so remains.

Nina Kambili