Decolonising the academy – Towards a global movement?

Just over a year ago a protest movement against a Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town in South Africa called for the statue’s removal as its presence on campus was perceived as symbolising a lack of transformation from apartheid and colonialism.

The protest began a series of campaigns to decolonise the academy in other universities in South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, where the #Blacklivesmatter campaign was ongoing.

#RhodesMustFall in South Africa and at the University of Oxford in the UK has had a broad impact on universities. While Rhodes literally fell at the Cape Town campus on 9 April 2015 after the removal of the statue, Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford remains standing adamantly.

At Oxford, university authorities have argued that they are open to a diversity of opinions on the statue while cautioning students about risks of reduced donor funding if the statue is removed.

Despite the symbolic setback at Oxford the #RhodesMustFall campaigns continue, often led by international students who exploit the symbolic campaign as an entry point to addressing other fundamental issues by mobilising against institutional white supremacy, imperial capitalism, patriarchy and resulting inequality based on class, race and gender.

No longer suffering in silence

Decolonising campaigns across universities in the United Kingdom are calling for better representation of non-white cultures in the curriculum and in the student and academic population while combating the racial discrimination and rampant insensitivity and micro-aggressions that students of colour experience silently.

A more diverse curriculum, student body and academic body would guarantee that the diverse ways of being – and diverse knowledge – that international students bring are accommodated and represented among other dominant ways of being, and that these universities can continue to claim their role as global centres of learning.

As global centres of learning that have benefited greatly from Britain’s imperial legacy, leading universities in the United Kingdom like Cambridge, Oxford and University College London can only undo this injustice by providing support through scholarships and other resources for international students from formerly colonised countries.

British universities may argue that they have started scholarship or exchange programmes with former colonies like the Commonwealth Trust scholarships. But that isn’t enough, given the damage caused, and more needs to be done in consultation with the countries involved if they are to move to a truly decolonial experience of learning.

Scholarship must be decolonised

Scholarship needs to be decolonised by first accepting the impact that colonial legacies have had on countries where many international students come from.

This is different from the current system where most scholarship is still based on a hierarchical idea of empire as a force for good. I was surprised, for instance, to learn that British colonialism is not discussed in British curricula for students in primary and secondary schools.

While university authorities are contesting calls to decolonise the academy in Britain, vibrant student movements continue undeterred in the hope that students like them who join these universities in future will find their spaces more accommodating.

Students are contesting the domination of a white capitalist curriculum that refuses to acknowledge other sources of knowledge outside the Western world in the social sciences, for instance. Reading lists on world literature or world politics or world history as told by Western scholars about the other, with a token appearance of scholars from the colonised world, should be revised.

These campaigns on decolonising the curricula in a sense question, as Gayatri Spivak did, if the subaltern can speak.

Along with their allies from Britain and other Western countries, international students have formed powerful movements that are slowly democratising the university.

Decolonising Cambridge?

At the University of Cambridge in the UK, where I am a student, international students in partnership with home students have organised decolonisation events in solidarity with #RhodesMustFall, #whyismycurriculumwhite, Can the Somali Speak? #CadaanStudies, and other decolonising movements among grassroots-based initiatives on education, housing and environment.

The most visible of these campaigns at Cambridge has been the removal of the 'okukor' cockerel at Jesus College. The okukor is a Benin bronze and was among hundreds of artworks plundered from the Benin Empire – which is now in Nigeria – after a punitive expedition in 1897 by the British. Jesus College is considering discussions with Nigerian authorities on repatriating the cockerel.

Another platform in Cambridge is Decolonise Cambridge, an umbrella body that coordinates groups interested in decolonising the curriculum and writing a radical history of Cambridge through organisations like the Black Cantabs.

The Decolonise Cambridge platform has organised seminars on decolonising the academy, which have brought together various campaigns in Cambridge, Oxford and South Africa.

A talk on whether figures such as Christ's College alumnus Jan Smuts must fall at Cambridge was organised by Phelan Chatterjee, who said: “I wanted to highlight the fact that, as much as we like to pride ourselves on scepticism and critical thinking, there seems to be an entirely uncritical glorification of too many historical figures.”

Hakim Adi, professor of African history and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester in the UK, was invited to talk at the event and also spoke about the legacy of Winston Churchill – an historical figure honoured by the University of Cambridge, in the form of Churchill College.

Another academic grouping questioning the status quo is Critical Theory and Practice. It has been organising a series of seminars in partnership with Cambridge Defend Education and the Cambridgeshire Left to integrate contemporary radical theory with practice and activism.

The Black Cantabs Society is a student-led historical society that is interested in researching and documenting the academic lives of early black students who studied at the University of Cambridge. In writing the black students of this institution into its history, its co-founders hope to redress the lack of visibility of black alumni among Cambridge’s celebrated alumni.

Despite exemplary achievements made by black alumni, they are rarely recorded in colleges as prominent alumni. As president and co-founder of the Black Cantabs Society, I am a member of Queens’ College, where the first documented black student graduated in 1847.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia, Alexander Crummell was the most prominent rationalist of enlightenment thinkers in the 19th century for his robust defence of the central place of reason in moral agency. I am hoping that this great scholar and thinker’s legacy will be honoured in the college alumni records and in future celebrations.

Although few structural changes have been made towards decolonising curricula or increasing representation of black academics and students, these campaigns have been successful in raising awareness in Britain of the legacies of colonialism.

These decolonial campaigns are powerful because they provide an opportunity for ordinary students and academics to do something.

While calls for decolonisation are popular in South Africa and Britain, the campaigns are yet to find resonance among students and academics in other parts of the world such as Africa outside South Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia. Only when that happens can there truly be a global movement.

Njoki Wamai is a Kenyan scholar at the University of Cambridge in the UK, doing a PhD in politics and international studies.