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UK higher education must be decolonised, students warn

A plan published by the National Union of Students says some parts of the sector ‘have propagated systems that assure white privilege’.

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Students have called for university education to be decolonised, saying institutions are “a product of colonialism” (Steve Parsons/PA)

UK universities are “a product of colonialism” and action is still needed to challenge “racist structures” in institutions, students have warned.

In a plan setting out their priorities for the future, the National Union of Students says that some parts of UK higher education “have propagated systems that assure white privilege” and that the system must be “decolonised”.

Universities have recognised there is a need to dismantle these systems, the union said, but more needs to be done to create a “truly liberated education”.

The call comes at a time of a number of campaigns, some focused on calling for individual universities to examine whether courses are too dominated by a small group of perspectives, typically white and male, and should include a broader range of voices and writers – sometimes known as “decolonising the curriculum”.

Others focus on wider issues, such as the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which was calling for institutions in Oxford and South Africa to remove statues of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

The NUS’s manifesto says it will work to “break down the barriers to succeeding in education and society”.

In a section entitled “decolonising our education”, it says: “Our educational structures and institutions are a product of colonialism: some have directly profited from this, while others have propagated systems that assure white privilege.

“This is reflected in the racist barriers and structures students face, with the attainment gap the most striking symptom of race inequity.

“Thanks to NUS campaigning, the sector recognises it has a responsibility to dismantle these systems.

“However, there remains the need for a vision of a truly liberated education, one that can thrive free from isolated attachment to western narratives.

“NUS will support activists working across the UK, to understand, identify, and actively challenge the racist structures in our colleges and universities.

“We will ensure that these groups can collaborate and speak together about the future of our education.”

A number of institutions have been taking action to review curriculums and practices.

For example, a joint report published by the NUS and vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK (UUK) in May this year, looking at attainment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students, noted that SOAS, University of London, has established an action plan outlining the institution’s “commitments to address the need for decolonisation within the school”.

Fope Olaleye, NUS black students officer, said: “Our educational structures and institutions are a product of colonialism – decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history and acknowledging that knowledge is not owned by anyone.

“Decolonising means providing students and staff with the tools and language to critically identify the ways in which the university structurally reproduces colonial hierarchies.

“This will empower them to confront, challenge and reject the status quo and put alternatives into practice for the benefit of our academic integrity and to ensure knowledge production reflects our diverse and multifaceted society.”

The NUS’s 10-point manifesto focuses on three areas overall, as well as “breaking down the barriers to succeeding in education and society”, these are “building a movement to transform education” and “breaking down the barriers to accessing education and taking part in society”.

Cecil Rhodes statue
File picture of a statue mounted on Oriel college, Oxford building of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (Steve Parsons/PA)

The 18-page plan also covers issues such as funding; accessible and affordable housing and transport; health care and fair access to education.

Zamzam Ibrahim, NUS national president said: “While our external environment is somewhat turbulent, and continues to be uncertain, we’ve still been able to launch a priority campaign focused on delivering a sustainable, accessible, life-long, funded solution to our broken education system and our biggest ever annual voter registration campaign for young people, that’s already showing results.

“While our plan contains ambitions beyond our year, it is founded in the reforms that members have told us they want, and the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.

“We’ll be looking to work with our members and students more closely in coming months as we launch other initiatives that support the delivery of our 10-point plan.”

A UUK spokeswoman said: “Many institutions have taken on board the need to have a more inclusive curriculum.

“Our work suggests several universities are reviewing their curriculums as well as conducting liberation or decolonisation activities in co-ordination with students’ unions and individuals.

“Many are at the early phase and have not been rolled out across entire institutions.”

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