Inside Track | Decolonising the curriculum
Bethan Corner, LUU Education Officer, and Dr Amrita Mukherjee, a Decolonisation Academic Lead, outline why we’re decolonising our curriculum, next steps being taken at Leeds and how to get involved.
Every student at Leeds deserves to receive the best and most accessible education possible.
Students from minoritised groups, however, have highlighted a sense of alienation, partly caused by curriculum content that either doesn’t speak to their interests and lived experiences or, worse still, is discriminatory and biased. Implementing a framework to replace such content in our curriculum is an integral part of the University’s commitment to reduce degree awarding gaps and non-continuation rates.
As the Education Officer for Leeds University Union (LUU) and one of the Decolonisation Academic Leads, we’re both passionate about our roles, which involve embedding as wide an academic and professional experience as possible.
When we were approached to write a piece about decolonising the curriculum at Leeds, we were aware this crucial topic – which the University is committed to – requires sustained individual and community engagement.
This active engagement, which involves staff and students, reflects the sensitive nature of the topic and the need to drive change through active conversations and projects, many of which have, and are, already taking place across the University.
LUU and the University work closely in partnership in all we do and, especially with decolonisation, we’ve benefited hugely from collaborating to develop our ideas and practices.
The task ahead
Decolonising a curriculum as deeply rooted as ours is no simple task, but one that must be prioritised at every opportunity. It’s important we do it for two reasons.
Firstly, it’s the right thing to do as it seeks to recognise, address and avoid further injustices. It isn’t about revising history, but acknowledging how some have benefited and others suffered from our colonial history, and how that privilege has shaped our education systems. Continuities mean that many communities are negatively impacted, and it can lead to alienation with a student experience that doesn’t speak to lived experiences.
Secondly, decolonising is integral to the University’s commitment to enhancing student success, as articulated in our institutional strategies, including Access and Student Success. Inclusivity and social justice also lie at the heart of our University values, as enshrined in our 2020-30 strategy.
It’s clear there’s no straightforward way to decolonise; it requires a constant level of reflection and acceptance of change. It’s also a journey without a clear end point where we can say the task is complete. That said, it remains crucial, not only for our current and future students but also for wider society. The University needs to adapt to its students’ ever-changing needs, and by providing a decolonised curriculum, we can educate the next generation of leaders from the widest knowledge base possible.
We must work together to question the colonial legacies that shape our education, research, structures and practices. We need to understand the voices that aren’t heard and amplify them. It’s relevant to all disciplines and every part of our institution.
Progress so far
Decolonising the curriculum is nothing new, especially not at LUU. The Campaign ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ is a continuous project. We’re now more aware than ever that students are calling for urgent action for their curricular activities. This work is vital, and we must actively challenge the content of the courses we provide at Leeds.
Many of our colleagues have already been incorporating decolonising teaching, research and pedagogy into their academic and professional services work. Their efforts are key to dismantling some of the established biases, but more colleagues must be given the opportunity to be further trained and engage with best practice, so that they may benefit from the enriching process decolonising work produces and engage with student voices. Through normalising this process and working together, we can embed the implementation of decolonisation as an expectation throughout our work, not peripheral to it.
The University has committed to a set of decolonising principles that create a clear framework for reviewing current practice and support for student education. These principles, along with dedicated expertise, resources and events the University provides, extend safe spaces to learn, discuss and make changes.
We’ve already seen the impact of this, with work including consideration of what decolonising means for academic professional bodies led by the faculties of Biological Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences. Faculties have also produced guides on the implications for respective disciplines, and the University is leading a regional group – involving colleagues from local institutions – to support change.
Of course, it’s vital we co-create and work on change with our students. LUU has worked in partnership with the University on the recent student decolonising conference, with more than 200 participants learning from work instigated by our students. Student research interns have also recently led on projects, including deepening the understanding of our colonial history.
The University will shortly be launching principles for decolonising research. It complements work on decolonising student education and considers how to listen and learn from multiple voices and knowledge streams in research, how we nurture emerging decolonial research and much more.
LUU has continuous projects on decolonisation that anyone can get involved with. We’re ensuring we prioritise engagement with those from low participation backgrounds. We’re having proactive conversations to ensure there’s transparency across the curriculum and that teaching staff are aware of all the principles.
If we’re going to continue and grow the momentum in this important area, we will need to build on this existing great practice. We want to end with three questions, or proposals, for us to consider as an academic community:
- In applying the resources and expertise across the institution, how are we considering our own practices in order to decolonise?
- How can we be role models for decolonising?
- Are there voices we don’t hear and how can we amplify them?
Why not sign up for the next Student Success Forum? ‘Decolonising Education – Where are we now and what must we do?’ runs online from 2-4pm on Monday 12 December.
In the meantime, here’s some handy links to access further resources on this topic:
- Decolonising reading list (Organisational Development and Professional Learning)
- Rapper AJ Tracey launches fund to help Black students at Oxford University (The Guardian)