Race Update 9 – Mia Liyanage, ‘Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities’, HEPI Report (July 2020)

by | Jul 29, 2020 | General, Race Update | 0 comments

Using testimony from sixteen interview respondents across academia, activism and policy, this HEPI Report addresses the common misconceptions about decolonisation and recommends a series of practical steps towards its implementation. It argues that decolonisation is both a vital and a beneficial next step for our universities.

Over five chapters, Liyanage maps ‘What decolonisation looks like’ as a student-led initiative. The report takes at its starting point a definition of decolonisation that ‘entails a fundamental re-evaluation of the existing forms of teaching, learning and pastoral support in Higher Education’.[1] In this way, decolonisation becomes about facing the ways in which our institutions materialise an unequal society which requires sustained commitment to ‘reassessing curricula, attainment and representation concurrently’.

Liyanage interviewed activists involved in the Rhodes Must Fall and Common Ground movements, a Vice Chancellor of a UK University, Oxford graduates, Lecturers in History, Sabbatical Officers, Black Students’ Officers, a Liberation and Access Officer, a policy adviser to universities on access and equality, diversity and inclusion and a chair of a humanities department. By drawing on the experiences of activists, academics and policymakers a holistic approach to the question of decolonisation is drawn.

Liyanage demonstrates that the decolonisation of UK universities is vital for the improvement of: course curricula; pedagogical practice; staff wellbeing; and the student experience. It puts forward five key policy recommendations that range from ‘discrete policy proposals [to] broader calls for attitude change’.[2]

Firstly, it asks that those in the university sector ‘Get educated about decolonisation and end its conflation with equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives’. This relies on realising that:

  • Decolonisation is an ongoing process of fundamentally reassessing and restructuring higher education.
  • Decolonisation is often put under the umbrella of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives – which, although valuable, are designed to add to existing structures.
  • This can result in the conflation of decolonial practice with measures seeking to diversify universities and their courses.

Secondly, it ask Higher Education to reprioritise and centre decolonisation as both pedagogically necessary and academically rigorous. Further, that the sector needs to do undo ideas:

  • that decolonisation is a tokenistic or politically motivated project;
  • that it would result in a reduction in academic rigour; and
  • that it only benefits students of colour.

Instead, decolonisation:

  • reasserts academic rigour by introducing new and challenging perspectives; and
  • asks pedagogical questions that are chronically under-addressed.

Thirdly, the report situates the funding of BAME research as foundational to effective decolonisation. It points out that:

  • There is currently little funding available for BAME scholars. This is partly owing to limited understanding in English, Scottish and Welsh universities of the legal framework that allows BAME-only studentships and scholarships.
  • The UK has not instituted or funded a British form of Black Studies, which is creating a dearth of decolonised research in our institutions.
  • Investment from institutions and government is necessary to bridge this gap.

Fourthly, ‘Miseducation’ stresses the need to tackle discrimination, hostility and unconscious bias. As:

  • Respondents reported that they have experienced both overt and covert discrimination because of their work.
  • Staff are concerned about the (potential negative) impact on their careers.
  • Students of colour feel silenced within institutions and are concerned about unconscious bias in marking.
  • This shows the necessity of reassessing university structures, as well as curricula, as part of decolonisation.

Fifthly and finally, Liyanage calls on decolonisation to be institutionalised, which relies on the creation of departmental roles and the education of students. Liyanage argues that the:

  • Current stasis around decolonisation is fuelled by a lack of training and institutional memory, and increased staff workload.
  • Universities’ hostility to activists means that they are missing out on valuable input.
  • Departments should hire at least one staff member per department to work specifically on issues pertaining to the decolonisation of their department; and establish channels for discussion between students and faculty – for example, through working groups or student internships.
  • Institutionalising decolonising research and processes will help to ensure sustained, meaningful change.

A notable theme that comes out in the report is that decolonising is not just for those racialised as non-white, it should not be side-lined as being the sole responsibility or for the exclusive benefit of BAME staff and students and has the potential to positively change the university sector as a whole for all of its constituents. Further, it is abundantly clear that ‘institutional problems require institutional solutions’ and anti-racist individuals alone cannot solve the problem.[3] The report concludes that the ‘current state of affairs is unacceptable academically, pedagogically and pastorally’.

Liyanage’s, is an important report and has the potential to offer a guide and resource to those seriously looking to decolonise and reflects the commitment to this agenda by a wide range of activists, scholars and the public alike.

Please feel free to email me at pastandpresentfellow@royalhistsoc.org with and questions or comments.


[1] M. Liyanage, ‘Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities’, HEPI Report (July 2020), p. 14.

[2] Ibid., p. 58.

[3] Ibid., p. 16.

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