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Serious about Decolonising the Curriculum!

A packed meeting of seriously minded individuals from across Birkbeck and beyond met to debate the current wave of initiatives to decolonise the curriculum in Higher Education. Despite heavy snow falling over most parts of the UK, over 100 participants attended determined to hear what the speakers had to say and make their contributions in an important area of equalities policy at a time when issues such as the BME attainment gap is of major concern. For participants this event was not about jumping on the band wagon but there was a genuine desire to be fully part of the action for change.


The event entitled: ‘Decolonising the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?’ (A title borrowed from a popular blog of the same name created by Dr Meera Sabaratnam) was held 1stFebruary at Birkbeck and was supported by Professor Karen Wells, the Assistant Dean, Equalities.  The event was initiated and organised by the Decolonising the Curriculum working group

a group which emerged from the Black Women, Womanist, Learning and Higher Education conference held at Birkbeck last year


At the start of the meeting, Dr Kerry Harman (Birkbeck’s Research Centre for Social Change and Transformation in Higher Education) declared that ‘Student involvement was the crux of the work of the group’ and the Birkbeck student’s union representative, Ezimma Chigbo, provided a sharp reminder of the nature of structural racism and how this can impact on students. She argued that students did not want to hear buzzwords used across the sector to no real concrete action.


The panel of expert speakers, invited to help Birkbeck shape its role in moving this important issue forward, were:


Dr William Ackah, Lecturer and Programme Director for Community Development and Development and Globalisation and Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (Department of Geography, Birkbeck) and Co-editor of Religion, Culture and Spirituality in Africa and the African Diaspora (2017), delivered an inspiring speech entitled: ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’. He cautioned that we should not speak about the curriculum without speaking about the institution.


Professor Gurminder Bhambra, Professor of Colonial Studies in the Department of International Relations in the School of Global studies (University of Sussex) and co-editor of ‘Decolonising the University’ (2018) gave a rousing speech where she spoke of the online resources available to assist us and stipulating the urgent need to refocus and change the dominant narratives.


Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London and author of Decolonising Intervention (2017) gave an uplifting but cautious address, reminding us of the nature of the many pedagogical challenges ahead and ways to move forward.


Comments from members of the Decolonising the Curriculum Working group’


We are grateful for the support received from SCUTREA (Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults).


As members of Birkbeck’s Decolonising the Curriculum working group, the event met with our expectations and we are excited about this development at Birkbeck. The working group is interested in contributing to scholarship on Decolonising Knowledges, more broadly, and see Decolonising the Curriculum as a key element of that work. We aim to have an impact on College policy on Decolonising the Curriculum and look forward to working with Assistant Deans, Equality, to move this important agenda forward.


To find out more about the event: Listen to the podcast:


Members of the Decolonising the Curriculum Working group:


William Ackah, Chair, Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race,


Ezimma Chigbo, Birkbeck Students Union representative


Jan Etienne, Chair, Womanism, Activism Higher Education Research Network


Elizabeth Charles, Assistant Director of Library Services


Patricia Gilbert, Lecturer and PhD student


Kerry Harman, Research Centre for Social Change and Transformation in HE


Discussion questions included:


  • How do we challenge something that has existed for 100s of years?
  • How do we talk about race in the classroom without disruption from activists?
  • What do we do about students not engaging with the curriculum? Should we all do a ‘cultural audit’ to ensure we understand one another?
  • More black professors are needed – How do we tackle this?

Question of attainment gap- could it impact on recruitment ie. retaining middle class white students

  • We need to look at the difference between immigrant and expatriate – socially constructed symbols – wearing a headscarf leading to being characterised as ‘disadvantaged’.
  • We need to make the connection between racism, mental health and depression.
  • Despite ethnic minority staff and students – both home and international students can feel that they don’t belong and don’t finish degrees – a great motivation to look at this further

Responses from panel members included:

  • Essential reading to be addressed, not just further reading
  • Looking at who is appointed, paid, retained – accounting for both BME British staff and BME international staff
  • The need for a shared understanding of what racism is
  • A need for an understanding of university structures
  • The impact of epistemological violence and double labour
  • The importance of consultation with the community and taking the university out of its ‘bubble’

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