Review of Dave P. Thomas & Suhraiya Jivraj, eds. Towards Decolonising the University: A Kaleidoscope for Empowered Action (Oxford: Counterpress, 2020)

This book’s publication is timely: the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 acted as a catalyst for the intensification of many mass movements in search of racial justice in the USA, UK and beyond. Protests and campaigns spurred many institutions, including the University of Greenwich, to release ‘Black Lives Matter’ statements and to commit publicly to antiracist actions such as decolonisation of the curriculum. However, Towards Decolonising the University, and the Decolonise the University of Kent Collective from whose work the book came, builds upon a longer and deeper foundation of anti-racist and anti-colonial scholarship on higher education. Recent works have included Kalwant Bhopal’s White Privilege (2018) and The Experience of Black and Minority Ethnic Academics (2016); Nicola Rollock’s report Staying Power (on Black female academics’ experiences), and Heidi Safia Mirza and Jason Arday’s Dismantling Race in Higher Education (2018). The volume itself contains 20 main pieces, including a thought-provoking poem by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan and a song by Lowkey, who performed as a keynote at the Decolonise UKC conference. These contributions cover a wide range of topics: from Islamophobia in the modern campus to John Maynard Keynes’ role in upholding colonial violence; from reading list projects to using novel media such as podcasts to upend traditional academic ‘discussion’ structures and spark a new conversation on decolonisation.

Towards Decolonising the University as a collection is infused with something that makes it new and fascinating: the voices and experiences, and scholarship, of students themselves. This is not the first time students have taken a leading role in decolonisation movements, the seminal ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in South Africa and the UK’s ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ being two key examples. The UK’s National Union of Students is currently campaigning on decolonisation of the curriculum, and Greenwich Students’ Union has produced its own decolonisation pledge. Students have rightly been at the forefront of such campaigns – as experts in lived experience and as our most important stakeholders.

What I loved about this collection, though, is that students are treated as experts and scholars, authoring essays that sit alongside those by established academic experts and can (and should) be cited in the same way. This offers a model to all of us who would like to collaborate with students – on decolonisation or on any topic – in future.

One of the most powerful contributions was student Wahida Ahmed’s essay ‘The Elephant in the Room: Conversations with Muslim Women’. Ahmed uses her own experience alongside that of the participants in focus groups to provide a rich, intellectually rigorous discussion of Muslim women’s experience at university. She covers the individual experience – for example, classmates’ reaction to the abaya – as well as broader policy discussions such as Prevent. Similarly, Antony Otobo-Martin’s piece ‘Two Cs and a D to a First-Class Degree: Conversations with Black Men’ uses the voice of Black male students in a focus group to explore how Black excellence can be better nurtured. Otobo-Martins exposes how structural bias works to prevent Black excellence – e.g. in teacher-graded coursework – and points to the DUKC manifesto as a source of constructive actions universities can take to work against this. Jasmyn Sergeant’s piece also came out of her facilitation of a focus group, highlighting the international student perspective – particularly poignant in the context of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ – and the importance of international diversity and representation in the curriculum to the learning of those students.

As well as research with current students, the collection also takes a critical look at the foundational structures of higher education, including academic disciplines. Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s poem ‘British Values’ puts it, ‘Britain is stolen artefacts in museums named after itself’ (83); Remi-Joseph Salisbury’s essay states: ‘…higher education is […] inextricably tied to the production of knowledge […] – fundamentally – to the (re)production of white supremacy’ (73). Anamika Misra’s ‘Decolonising Keynes’ acts as a crucial corrective to the popular valorisation of John Maynard Keynes (especially at Kent, of course), highlighting not just his active roles in the British Empire and Eugenics movements, but how this role has been (literally) whitewashed out of historical accounts and teaching. Ahmed Memon, Joy Olugboyega and Francesca Sobande contribute a fascinating account of decolonisation as applied to both the medium and content of international law teaching. They describe how the podcast ‘Stripping the White Walls’ aimed to decolonise knowledge production and discussion through centering ‘non-expert’ voices and sidestepping institutional gatekeepers. Memon and Olugboyega then show how even a podcast that had critiqued Eurocentrism – the international law podcast Fool’s Utopia – could be further challenged by their intervention, which aimed to recentre lived experience and personal knowledge in ‘academic’ discussion: in their words ‘engagement with the people, rather than for or about them’ (96).

These pieces question colonialist, traditional modes of disseminating research: Ahmed Raza Memon’s piece ‘Empowered Voices in Research: the Road to the Forum on Ethics of Research’ brings a decolonial perspective to its production. Memon provides an accessible introduction to the (growing) scholarship on decolonial research ethics, as well as highlighting the effect of current, colonialist research norms on researchers of colour. In Memon’s words, ‘The operational mode of “being white”’ is to be subsumed as the “neo-liberal” academic who thrives and succeeds in the academic networks of “intellectual elites”’ (156). Memon suggests a variety of ways forward as well as giving an account of the Forum’s role in providing a space for ECRs of colour to discuss these issues.

Alternative paradigms for discussion and research are offered by the BARC (Building the Anti-Racist Classroom) Collective’s zine-making workshops, which Lisa Shoko, a student, found revelatory. Shoko’s essay contrasts the empowering structures offered by BARC with the assumptions of underlying phrases such as ‘attainment gap’ and much existing research; as she notes, at BARC and in other explicitly decolonial spaces ‘we were being dared to have the audacity to occupy spaces on campus and to contribute to knowledge’ (148). Memon’s essay highlights the fundamentally colonial assumption of human subjects of research as objects of study, rather than speaking subjects – Shoko’s piece provides a vivid insight into what it feels like for students who are seen as the ‘object’ of the increasingly common research into the ‘attainment’ (or ‘awarding’) gap.

If such research is to be successful, therefore, we must centre the voices of students as co-creators and contributors of equal merit rather than research subjects. However, as Lez Henry notes, ‘the onus must be placed on institutions’ (77): students of colour must not be asked to give up their learning opportunities in order to do the work of decolonisation. Moreover, ethical issues mean students, while centred, may need to be anonymised. The volume walks this line with care, crediting students as lead researchers (and the students volunteered where they felt they would benefit from the opportunity) while anonymising others’ voices. Nevertheless, the paradox here is ably highlighted by Dave Thomas, who asks whether a sector ‘fashioned to perpetuate an unequal status quo’ can ‘truly redress structural inequalities’? Arguably, we are not yet there; and as Thomas notes, drawing on Audre Lorde, to ‘refashion the master’s tools’ will be ‘uncomfortable and inconvenient […] a process of disorder’ (60).

What hope for decolonisation, then? If there is a way forward, this is it; the Decolonise University of Kent collective has not shied away from challenging conversations but has instead sought to make radical demands and suggest radical change. This is not something that can be ‘rolled out’ across an institution, nor a tick-box exercise. Although I began this piece by citing recent scholarship, as Heidi Safia Mirza’s Afterword makes clear, networks such as DUKC ‘are rooted in the long arc of history for the struggle for racial justice’ (188). The DUKC Manifesto makes concrete recommendations, including diverse reading lists, inclusion of students of colour in induction weeks to provide role models, culturally competent student support and a forum for students of colour to raise concerns. However, as this collection shows, these concrete actions are outputs of a much more fundamental shift in perspective and values: anyone seeking a similarly radical and effective change should put this collection at the top of their ‘to-read’ list.

The book is available to download on the Counterpress website.

Dr Emma Kennedy
Lecturer in HE Learning and Teaching

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