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SPAIS is equipping students to question the status quo

Epigram investigates efforts by the University of Bristol's School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies to decolonise their curriculum, in the wake of claims that the decolonisation of universities is 'censoring history'.

By Daniel Hutton, Second Year Politics and International Relations

The movement to decolonise universities has come under significant criticism in recent years, with Michelle Donelan, previous Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, describing it as ‘Censoring history’. Many critics share this sentiment, viewing the movement as an effort to conceal the past. This, however, misses the fundamental point of decolonising the way our universities operate.

Calls to ‘decolonise the university’ gained momentum in 2015 with student protests in South Africa that ultimately changed the way in which their national curriculum for higher education was structured. A summit was arranged in response to these protests, in which the Minister of Higher Education called for curriculums to focus more on African sources of knowledge.

This is important for post-colonial states because, as Professor Ndlovu-Gatsheni describes it, ‘Even when you push back colonisation as a physical process, colonialism as a power structure continues as a metaphysical process… [it] invades the mental universe of a people, destabilizing them from what they used to know, into knowing what is brought in by colonialism’. For universities in South Africa, decolonising their curriculums meant moving away from European sources of knowledge and re-centring attention on African ones to break away from the enduring effects that colonisation had on their country.

Since the efforts to decolonise higher education in South Africa, there has been considerable academic attention on the topic, and it has motivated universities around the world to rethink the way in which they deliver knowledge to students.

'[I]t is troubling to see the UK government issue a report that has found no evidence of systemic racism in the UK.'

The University of Bristol describes its approach to decolonisation as ‘An active process of critical scrutiny of our curricula and teaching practices aimed at understanding this legacy and beginning the work of dismantling it’. The approach to decolonising the literature is additive, in the sense that it adds new methods of exploration into how the past affects the sources of knowledge we rely on today. This can include recontextualising the ideologies of white authors that dominate our reading lists, to allow students to fully engage in the critical analysis of political texts.

When John Locke,—often credited as the founder of liberalism,—talked of the ‘inalienable rights’ to ‘life, liberty and property’ it is important to note that he was also an investor and shareholder in the Royal African Company, a mercantile trading company that orchestrated the enslavement of African people and paradoxically denied them the rights that Locke saw fundamental to every human being.

It is therefore important to place him in the colonial context from which he was writing. Being the bastion of equality and basic human rights whilst profiting from the largest slave trading company in the world might illustrate that his philosophical ideas were intended only for his own race.

While Michelle Donelan viewed this process as fictionalising history and ‘taking bits out we view as stains’, for the University of Bristol, decolonisation is the opposite of censoring history – it is the exploration of the atrocities of our past and the analysis of how they have constructed the realities we see today.

When Epigram spoke to academics from the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS), they highlighted that much of the motivation and ideas to decolonise the department have come from students. Dr Cathy Wilcock, a lecturer in Politics and International Studies, told Epigram: ‘Most of the best changes have come from students themselves’. One of these changes is the inclusion of non-academic texts in reading lists which, in her view, brings a ‘Bottom-up and humanist angle to our engagement with politics’.

'The aim is that these perspectives will equip students to make connections between previous and current forms of exploitation'

Dr Wilcock emphasised that historically accurate novels can provide a more holistic view of the country in which you are studying. For instance, in the module Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in South Asia, a large number of novels are provided in the first week that provide accounts of topics such as the politics of ethnicity in Pakistan. All of them written by people who lived in the countries being studied.

More than just reframing white authors in a colonial context and providing indigenous non-academic texts, the SPAIS department has included entirely new modules that are centred around teaching the development of modern politics from a de-colonial perspective. Modules like the Politics of the Global South focus on the history of colonialism and how it has created the power structures we see today.

Wills Memorial Library | Nick Sarebi / Flickr

Unit directer Dr Egle Cesnulyte, expressed her belief that it is critically important for her students to have ‘Not only fuller knowledge of global histories that shaped the contemporary capitalist system we live in, but also theoretical and conceptual tools to question the status quo’.

This module is one of the first that Politics students will take at the University, and learning about the contribution of colonialism to the development of our current global economy is an important first point of contact.

As the course progresses, current world events are debated on whether they represent a form of neo-colonialism. In particular, the IMF and world banks ‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’, which hand out loans to developing countries in return for a significant degree of control over the operation of their economic system. These programs usually include austerity measures on welfare services like education and healthcare to reduce spending deficits and a broader restructuring of their economy to fit in with the global capitalist system currently in place. Actions like this can be reframed as a continuation of control by the West on their former colonies.

The aim is that these perspectives will equip students to make connections between previous and current forms of exploitation – an important tool for people living in a country that still battles racism at the core of its institutions. In England and Wales, black people are nine times more likely to get stop and searched and BAME individuals are twice as likely to die in police custody.

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Sign of the times

Alongside this are inconsistencies in the accountability of law enforcement: less than one per cent of officers with more than one accusation of discrimination has been fired since 2013. With this information at hand, it is then troubling to see the UK government issue a report that has found no evidence of systemic racism in the UK.

Educating every university student, but especially students of politically adjacent subjects, some of whom may pursue careers in government, from a decolonial perspective allows them to look deeper into the causes and locations of racism in our society. Perhaps with the progression of these efforts, we might produce governments that address these issues  and seek guidance in an effort to correct them.

Featured Image: Korng Sok / Unsplash

Have you suggested any changes to decolonise your course’s curriculum?