Decolonisation: Race equality and Higher Education
Education in the UK is often lionised as an institution that is fundamentally meritocratic. Its mantra might read: Success is achieved through hard work, commitment and determination, irrespective of who you are or where you come from.
Those who subscribe to this position might point to the success of widening participation policies in Higher Education launched in the late-1990s, which have increased participation for individuals from groups who have historically found universities difficult to access. Included here are women, people from working-class backgrounds, and people from minority ethnic groups
However, education sociologists, activists and anti-racism campaigners, such as Professor Cecile Wright, Professor Nicola Rollock, and Professor Kalwant Bhopal have all argued that, despite increasing participation rates among students from different ethnic, gender and social backgrounds, education in Britain still does not work for all students in the same way. This is especially the case for students from minority ethnic backgrounds in Britain, who continue to have a much less positive experience in Higher Education than their White peers.
The Award Gap in HE
Nationally in 2020, the aggregate White student award-outcomes were 10% higher than the aggregate BAME-student population and significantly wider for domicile Black African, Black Caribbean and South Asian Pakistani heritage students (see AdvanceHE 2021). At University of Leicester, the aggregate difference in award outcomes were similarly 10% in 2020. In response, our VC, Nishan Canagarajah, set the University of Leicester the target of eliminating the awarding gap between its BAME and White domicile students by 2026. Led by the recently launched Leicester Institute for Inclusivity in Higher Education (LIIHE), this response has so far, largely targeted the racial inequalities that manifest in course content and in assessment and assessment processes. These are seen to be a key causal factor for the disparities discussed above.
Creating a Racially Inclusive Curriculum: A response to the ‘Race’ Award Gap in HE
There is much historical, conceptual, theoretical and subject specific discussion and debate as to what a racially inclusive or ‘decolonized’ university is and specifically here, how it translates into practical and explicit education-based policies. Narrowing our focus solely on making our curricular and pedagogy racially inclusive – that is, to put it crudely, to focus on what and how we teach – LIIHE’s position is that this is a process of ensuring curricular includes alternative ways of explaining, documenting and thinking about the world and includes a greater plurality of perspectives.
The reality is that HEIs influence and shape what counts as ‘legitimate’ knowledge. Mignolo (2009) posits that the narratives curricular embrace and (re)produce are too often presented as universal, neutral and as a singular and objective truth. For Peters (2018, 254), these narratives are more accurately described as a ‘[W]hite’ and Eurocentric knowledge-base, that is predominantly produced by ‘[W]hite authors’. Moreover, they serve to normalise and privilege White history, cultural values, norms, practices, perspectives, experiences, and voices. While at the same time, they marginalise other forms of knowing – albeit in varying ways. This situation has a profound impact on who and which students the academy directly relates to, works for, privileges and excludes in its processes, procedures, and award outcomes.
Put another way, most current UK educational content, assessment and pedagogical practice prioritises and promotes White western or European ideas, thinkers and viewpoints. Curricular ‘normalises’ whiteness and marginalises Black (and the global South’s) contributions to knowledge, voices, histories and experiences. Race is simultaneously given a lesser status and ‘othered’; it is made exotic or presented as tragic – or ignored. This has a profound impact on how BAME students see education, see themselves in education, and how they relate education to their own life worlds (Campbell 2020). This situation also impacts negatively on levels of satisfaction and can influence student engagement, motivation and performance.
At Leicester, our response is to begin a process of reform in our degree programmes to include thinkers, literature and ideas from the global South. That is to make content more directly relevant and relatable to the experiences of all people in a 21st century and global Britain. By centralising race alongside other key areas of experience, such as gender, class, sexuality, we aim to provide greater scope for all students to apply learned content to their own interests and realities in their assessments. This is also designed to enable students to have a greater say in the things they study and learn, by diversifying subject areas to better reflect the range of people, experiences, realities and ideas that exists within the student body today.
Conclusion: Why is this important?
Leading the sector in making HEIs work more equitably for all people, regardless of their raced backgrounds through LIIHE, is especially pertinent for the University of Leicester, for whom racial diversity is deeply embedded and reflected in our city, the communities in which we are couched and our student body.
The goal of a racially inclusive curriculum is to create a more open, equality-driven, relevant and inspiring curriculum, one which provides a much more plural, critical and globalised canon of knowledge. This paradigm shift has the aim of offering benefits for all students, not just those from BAME backgrounds. Reforming the curriculum is the beginning of a revolutionary process which seeks to create a Higher Education system that is fully and racially inclusive and fit for the 21st century.
Importantly, the ultimate goal is to create UK universities that live up to their own mantra: that the only thing that should influence success in education is effort and hard work, not your raced, ethnic or social group.
Dr Paul Ian Campbell
Research and supervision interests
- Race and ethnicity
- BAME community formation and change
- Local and Professional Football
- Youth, masculinity and identity formation
- Leisure and Sport
- The experience of dual-heritage and mixed-raced individuals and groups