Decolonising the Curriculum: Students’ Union Priorities

Ella Linskens, BA Arabic 

The results of the strategic priorities referendum places Decolonising the Curriculum as the Students’ Union number one priority. This result, alongside current movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?” indicate a growing activism which questions remnants of colonialism within the university. Zain Dada, the SU Activities and Events Officer and one of the founders of the Decolonizing our Minds society, comments “The fact that this is the top priority for the Union illuminates how necessary this is.”

The referendum occurs every three years; students decide which 6 key areas, out of the twenty two topics picked by the Union Executive, the SU should focus on. The voting took place over the first three and a half weeks of term and closed on the 28th of January. The top six priorities were in this order: Education: Decolonising the Curriculum, Employability, Welfare: Accommodation, Education: Curriculum Development, Welfare: Mental Health, and Welfare: Financial Support. The next three were Environment, Liberation Campaigns and Sport Development and form secondary priorities. The Union Executive will be working on a strategic plan over the next month, and will be presenting it to the Student Experience Committee.

In light of these results, the event, Why the Decolonised University?, hosted by the Students’ Union and the Decolonising our Minds Society is especially pertinent. The panel consisted of Dr. Meera Sabartnam (IR Lecturer at SOAS), Dr. Rahul Rao (Politics Lecturer at SOAS), Adam Elliot-Cooper (PhD Student at Oxford), Simukai Chigudu (DPhil Researcher at Oxford), and Dr. Kerem Nisancioglu (IR Lecturer at SOAS) who facilitated the discussion. The event raised concerns and added voices to the critical unpacking of SOAS as it goes into its’ centenary year. Although SOAS is exceptional in it’s focus on Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the curriculum ‘remains coloured by Whiteness.’

The first question posed to the panelists was ‘Why decolonisation? And why now?’ Here Sabartnam mentioned that the impulse is not new, but that theneed to assert identity has increased in the face of heightened racism, and in the failure of the liberal prohibitions on racism. Rahul mentioned that his being a Rhodes scholar put him in a conflicted position, and mentioned that the Rhodes Trust partnered with the Mandela Foundation. Mandela’s approval here spared violence, and has ‘deferred reckoning’ with apartheid and institutional racism. He also asserted that South Africa is the centre of this movement and we are feeling reverberations of this on the periphery.

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From here the conversation moved to what is specific to Britain as a centre of anti-imperialist organising. Chigudu, who is from Zimbabwe, pointed to how individuals from the Global South “feel colonised” at Oxford, where they encounter stories told consistently in either the colonial or postcolonial framework. Here Rahul brought in Fanon and the way in which colonialism affects both the coloniser and the colonised, specifically that the coloniser is as much in need of an end to colonialism as the colonised. The increase in migration, and the immigrant as a ‘part shareholder’ who has a claim in the post colonial space, is also effecting this. In answer to the question, Sabartnam pointed to various current contexts inside the UK including neoliberalism, the War on Terror as a modern mode of colonial operation, and an increase in conservative articulations on “Western values”.

The two hours were filled to the brim with insightful observations on the nature of decoloniality as it relates to the university. Chigudu asked, ‘Do we need to decolonise knowledge production?’ when thinking about colonial remnant inside the university. He also asked ‘Who does the university belong to and who is it for?’ Students are finding themselves a secondary consideration to the reputation and history of the institution they are a part of, as is particularly exemplified by the Rhodes Must Fall Movement in Oxford. Elliot-Cooper pointed to the process of intellectualizing within the university as a way of co-opting these struggles and removing their power from them. He also made the observation that whereas the language of racism can be co-opted, the language of decolonisation can not. Here Rao mentioned epistemic violence resulting from the

Rhodes statue, as one example. “Those feelings are real with real effects,” he stated “even if a false message.” At one point Nisancioglu furthered this discussion by asking, ‘What does it mean to call our university and curriculum white and how does it affect learning, reading, recruitment and both academic and non academic staff?’ The last addition to the question is particularly relevant at SOAS, where the Justice for Cleaners have been campaigning for a decade to be brought in-house and shows the ways in which questions of decolonisation link to concerns about the everyday functioning of the university. Here Elliot-Cooper said that the inception of whiteness bred intersectionality, in that not only whiteness was placed at the top of the socially constructed hierarchy of race, but that physically able, heteronormative, male whiteness was.

So what does a decolonizing university looks like? It is important to highlight the use of decolonizing here, rather than decolonized, as Sabartnam pointed to it being a constant process. Chigudu suggests here to practice a ‘politics of radical humility’ as a way to counter privilege. Sabartnam took a hopeful slant, saying that perhaps Western supremacy is already on the way out, seen in the increasing economic fragility and debt, “sucking gravity out of the West.” This is changing “what becomes the realm of the possible.” Rahul hopes for a policy of both reckoning and redistribution, where the battle of redistribution is fought on the incredibly consequential field of symbolism, the practical stuff being both redistributive and symbolic. For Rahul decolonizing means three things; telling untold stories, dismantling internalised inferiority complexes and rewriting histories.

Dada summarizes the above sentiments and its relationship to SOAS with these words, “With the 100th year since the institutions founding, the question of decolonising the curriculum is more pertinent than ever. As an educational companion to the British imperial mission, the knowledge produced at SOAS is linked to the colonial violence and conquest which happened across the world. With the campaign of “Decolonising SOAS,” we hope to interrogate how much this knowledge production is still embedded in the past.”

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