Decolonisation of higher education is not just a buzzword

Has the call for decolonisation of higher education that arose within South African universities several years ago become a transformative trend elsewhere? Is it more than a buzzword? It would seem so in the light of some recent events.

The journal Sociologie et Sociétés in Canada, for example, has just published a special issue on epistemic injustice edited by Baptiste Godrie and Marie Dos Santos of the University of Montreal. One article, “Haitian Meditation”, by Professor Florence Piron from Laval University in Quebec, recounts a 2017 visit to Haiti to teach about epistemic justice.

It reminds us of the words of Frantz Fanon written in 1992, speaking about the dominance of European thought in the colonial world: “My friends, the European game is definitely over … if we want to see humanity advance, for Africa and for the world, we need to invent and discover a new way of thinking”.

Piron goes on to write of the violence of positivist epistemology, the violence of hegemony and exclusion of peoples, the violence of neoliberalism, the violence of indifference and the violence of a separatist epistemology.

She writes instead of ‘relational epistemology’ (épistémologie du lien), which links to Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ views about the ‘epistemologies of the Global South’ in his 2007 book Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges.

At Birkbeck, University of London in the United Kingdom, a recent session on ‘Decolonising the curriculum: What’s all the fuss about?’ included speakers Kerry Harman, Jan Etienne and William Ackah of Birkbeck, Gurminder Bhambra from the University of Sussex and Meera Sabaratnam of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

Each is engaged in both the intellectual work and the hard practical work involved in transforming the spaces within universities in decolonial ways.

Ackah drew on the poetry of Audre Lorde, the fiction of Ralph Ellison and the lyrics of Bob Marley to speak of the “Ambush in the night” that is the domination of white Eurocentric knowledge in a world where the majority are black and brown people. The contemporary university curriculum is, according to Ackah, ‘affirmative action for the white middle class’.

Bhambra noted that contemporary university curricula are increasing racial inequality. She reported on studies that show that when students from both black and minority ethnic backgrounds and white British backgrounds enter university with the same scores from schools, a gap opens up, with the marks of the black and minority ethnic students declining in relation to the other students.

She added that “modernity is not only a European phenomenon” and drew attention to the claim that the body of knowledge which emerged from Europe some 500 or so years ago, sometimes referred to as the Western canon, is not the only knowledge pathway to modernity.

She claimed that other knowledge systems from other parts of the world and cultures could also be seen as pathways. Her ideas can be seen in more detail in Decolonising the University, a book which she has co-edited.

Context matters

Sabaratnam, a member of the senate at SOAS as well a member of the SOAS Decolonising the University Working Group, shared ideas from her current work with students and staff at SOAS. She pointed out that teaching differently (in a decolonising manner) is hard work and that most university lecturers have not had opportunities to learn how to teach in anti-racist or decolonial ways.

Most university lecturers are content specialists. Sabaratnam asked them to do more than just add decolonial content to their courses, but instead to change the ways that they engage with each other on issues of race, colonisation, patriarchy and so forth. She also noted that “we have to make demands” within our university structures if we want to see change.

Sabaratnam made another point, that “decolonialisation is always contextualised within place, history and context”. For myself and others living and working in Western Canada, our focus would prioritise the indigenisation of our curricula within a larger decolonial framework.

A decolonial project in Uganda would take on validation of African indigenous knowledge as a priority project. Similarly, the decolonisation of universities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Colombia and Sardinia would have distinct intellectual trajectories.

We are reminded that the theories and practices of community-based participatory research with their focus on an epistemology of place have a significant role to play in the project of decolonising our universities. Knowledge democracy calls for decolonisation of institutions of higher education, the end to epistemic violence and the practices of epistemologies of place.

I believe that the conversation on decolonisation of higher education and the broader decolonisation of knowledge is one that will continue to expand. We should remember that at one time there were no women’s studies in universities. In Canada we are seeing indigenous studies in nearly every Canadian university.

Universities are places of contestation where many ideas confront each other. The decolonial conversation is one of those sets of ideas that we will be working with into the future.

Budd L Hall is professor emeritus with the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, Canada, and is co-chair of the UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.