Humanising and decolonising international higher education

Higher education internationally is seeing a decline in its commitment to humanising and decolonising the higher education environment.

In 2020 I suggested that humanising international higher education requires “respect for humanity, ethical frameworks, co-construction of knowledge that is embedded in a compassionate, kind and empathetic framework, and one that is led by student communities who will lead the co-construction and integration of co-constructed glocal knowledge perspectives, indigenous knowledge forms and lived experience”.

In reflecting upon these knowledge forms and our colonised perspectives, we must question the Western roots of our theoretical frameworks. This was the focus of the RAACES Conference in Canada in 2021, where there was an emphasis on the necessity to humanise and decolonise discussions in international higher education in order to advocate for the voices, world views and perspectives of the oppressed.

The conference’s rhetoric about reshaping, restructuring and reinventing the higher education landscape to inspire an inclusive, diverse and equitable (IDE) distribution of resources and representation of the whole human race, marks a shift from older affirmative action and cultural diversity models towards the rapidly growing IDE models in recent years.

Following the age-old pattern of colonised higher education, IDE – or EDI, DEI or IED – models are representative of the carefully designed agendas of colonial powers. Present and future agendas in international higher education continue to be designed and driven by colonial actors.

Among those actors is a sprinkling of ‘diverse’ key players, who have benefited from colonial international higher education systems the world over – such as those who have taken part in sponsored study abroad and in-country programmes or those who have trained and graduated within colonial education systems and so on.

Learning from the past

International higher education institutions, as agencies for change, should ensure that higher education programmes, education conferences and strategies become catalysts for change.

In keeping with the history of colonised nations that fought for their freedoms and independence from their colonial masters, it is necessary to reignite the passion for freedom among them that was exercised during their colonial captivity, and to break free from the shadows of the colonisers in whatever disguises they assume in the present and future.

In order for humanity to thrive, international higher education should submit to collaborative engagement with all communities and nations.

Empowered voices in international higher education such as Mamphela
and the Association of African Universities should grow into a humanisation and decolonisation movement, drawing on the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a greater commitment to action for change.

The time for imagining and reinventing international higher education has passed; we must take action in the present and the future through visible collaborations.

We carry the burden of responsibility to deliver a human-oriented higher education that is respectful of disempowered, disenfranchised communities that have been walking for decades behind the privileged, in the shadows of coloniser communities who fake their commitment to one common humanity.

In a world where segregation continues to resound in the cries of mothers and their orphans in Palestine and among First Nation communities who continue to be confined by colonial governments to their reserves, it is international higher education that must deliver their freedom through agitation and advocacy.

Embracing higher education agency

Of the various fora higher education has where it can work for change, conferences are prime catalysts if we can stop their repetitive focus on rhetoric and use them to move towards action for change that is aligned to a humanising and decolonising agenda.

Such change translates into a solutions-based action agenda that moves from conferences and forums to benefit communities on an ongoing basis when it comes to all 17 SDGs.

Actioned change requires a decolonised rendering of shared resources. It requires challenging the exclusionary ‘for profit’ agenda and moving towards inclusionary agendas in international higher education and corporations; interrogating the colonised mission of developed nations when it comes to their subjugation of developing nations held forever in ‘bonded development’ through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and submitting indigenous knowledge, world views, ways of being and perspectives as alternatives to the ingrained theoretical frameworks of settler communities.

Conferences as catalysts for change

Higher education conferences, as change agents (insofar as they act to diffuse innovative thinking), should question and reject rhetoric and avoid new words and phrases that are destined to become the next mantra that will not lead to any meaningful change.

Higher education institutions are obliged to interrogate and revise fragile models of improvement in the quality of education; are compelled to commit to action when it comes to the relevant SDGs and to construct holistic frameworks; and must act to enable poverty-stricken communities to receive quality education.

Higher education institutions should commit to ongoing post-conference action workshops to measure their glocal (local and international) SDG footprint.

Conference organisers such as the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (in existence for 50 years) in Australasia, the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Canada, and the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning in the United States, should be committed to the development of reconciliatory actions through reparations for the past and present and build a future that is committed to the benefit of humanity as a whole.

Conference deliberations should adopt the strategies of decades in the last century, when conference hosts and participants aggressively debated, disagreed and fought for humanity, confronted bigotry and respected other people’s voices and other world views, perspectives and knowledges.

Conference attendees should be infused with the passion and confidence to place their conflicting views on the table and should be fearless warriors of free thought.

Participants should be confident as they fight for their voices to be heard, for freedom of expression without harming the freedom of others, must be recognised as ‘divergents’ among a room full of followers, must debate, argue, disagree and find a unique place in the forum of disrupted thought.

All of this may or may not be familiar to the coloniser landscape; perhaps it will require the colonised and poverty-stricken nations to lead on the humanisation and decolonisation agendas of international higher education.

Conferences beyond 2023 should be regarded as spaces in which we remove ourselves from the shadows of the colonial, oppressive, exploitative imposition of the past decades and centuries.

Higher education institutions are charged with the responsibility and accountability to forge a new path for First Nations and colonised communities.

They are entrusted to confront the truth, reconcile communities that are buried under injustices and allow the First Nations of the world to establish their sovereignty through managing reconciliation agendas and empowering the downtrodden masses to confront the injustices they face, but also to build a present and future that will embrace the whole of humanity in a decolonised world.

Dr Fay Patel is an academic, researcher and international higher education consultant who has contributed to higher education programmes and projects in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Patel was the former associate vice-president, teaching and student analytics, at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. She also contributed to the UNESCO Forums (by invitation of UNESCO Bangkok) in Bangkok, Thailand and in Chengdu, China; as external peer reviewer in the World Bank quality assurance project in Bangladesh; as senior case manager at the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency in Melbourne, Australia; and as an independent reviewer in the Peer Review Portal project in Tasmania, Australia. Patel is the editor of the 2021 book Power Imbalance, Bullying and Harassment in Academia and the Glocal (Local and Global) Workplace.