SEC 2022 and Decolonising

Femi Owolade is a Research Assistant at LITE supporting a range of LITE Fellowships contributing to the University’s work in widening participation and student success. Femi reflects on the Student Education Conference through a decolonising lens.

The opening address of the Student Education Conference (SEC) saw the Vice Chancellor Simone Buitendijk reinforce her commitment to fostering a sense of belonging and community for staff and students within the University. To cultivate this culture, she called for student education to be redefined in a way that students are engaged as partners and co-creators of knowledge. This opening address set the tone for what would be a student-centric conference, where the perspectives and voices of students were placed at the heart of every conference activity.  As I have had the privilege to work closely with our students- mainly through research placement supervision, I did not need to see the conference programme to know that an inevitable talking point to arise from the event is the need to decolonise.

Students from our University, and indeed from universities across the UK, have put out various calls to decolonise the curriculum. In what has become known as a ‘movement’, ‘decolonising the curriculum’ calls for a greater representation of non-Eurocentric views in the modules taught at universities, as well as a greater awareness for some of the inequalities within higher education relating to access, representation, and the attainment gap.  Universities across the UK have had varying responses to the movement. While some have committed to a sustained effort to make their curricula more diverse and inclusive,  others have developed online courses on the theory and practice of decolonising education.

In the University of Leeds, awareness on decolonisation gained prominence with Melz Owusu’s celebrated 2017 TEDTalk on ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’. In just under 11 minutes, Melz, who was at the time the Education Officer, eloquently captured the desperate need to decolonise our curriculum, in a way that reflected the student voice and resonated with the British public. The talk went viral, Melz became an instant celebrity, and it was time to start taking decolonisation seriously.

The following years saw a concerted effort on the part of the University to engage in decolonising conversations. In November 2020, the University of Leeds Educational Engagement team launched the Access and Student Success Strategy 2025, through work led by Louise Banahene, Director of Educational Engagement. The key feature of the strategy was to ensure that students from all backgrounds are provided with fair opportunities to study and thrive in Leeds, as well as to enhance a sense of belonging for students from minoritised groups. To support the delivery of the strategy, the educational engagement team has funded several research activities that feed into the University-wide sense of belonging work– with decolonising teaching practices constituting an integral piece.

We then saw the ‘decolonising’ activity given a focus, with the formation of the Leeds Decolonising Working Group- a group of fellow academics and staff committed to decolonising teaching and learning practices within the University. Since its inception, the group (which I am proud to be a member of) has produced some useful decolonising resources, which include a set of key principles, as well as a podcast series. We have also made attempts to engage and support students doing ‘decolonising’ work. But much more needs to be done.

At the first of the parallel sessions at the conference, the ‘Listening to our community’ room,  saw two papers cover the topic of decolonisation. The first, was Esta-Rose Nyeko-Lacek’s ‘Reading lists, decolonization and student success’. Esta’s paper, in its delivery and recommendations, moved our students from the margins to the centre of decolonising activities – where they rightly belong. From its recommendation that lecturers hold discussions with students about why selected sources are considered ‘authoritative’, we see that Esta’s paper is a direct response to the Vice Chancellor’s call for student education to be redefined in a way that students are engaged as partners and co-creators of knowledge.

Esta’s paper is based on a student placement project which I had the privilege to supervise. The project, supported by the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE), aimed to enrich student’s engagement with their reading lists by contextualising researchers and their environment, and was part of a wider movement within the University to decolonise the curriculum. Other student research projects included exploring the University’s link to colonialism and investigating widening participation in postgraduate study.  A second part of this research will take place this year, through the University’s role in the collaborative project Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education, which aims to address under-representation in postgraduate research study with a focus on UK Black, Asian and minority ethnic students.

The University’s support for decolonising work has been encouraging. In July 2021, the University Senate endorsed the decolonisation principles document. In the document, there is a strong emphasis on student representation with plans already underway for a student-led decolonising conference to be held at Leeds this summer.

The second paper at SEC that touched on decolonising themes in the ‘Listening to our community’ session was different in content and tone. While not directly based on decolonising, like Esta’s paper, some related themes were raised by Bridgette Bewick and Louise Banahene in their session on ‘I belong, you belong, we belong: amplifying minoritised and marginalised voices to facilitate whole-institution cultural change’.

Interestingly, the paper framed decolonising as an activity that aids belonging. Here, we see ‘decolonising’ positioned in a list of ‘belonging’ initiatives developed in the last three years, with the Access strategy providing an overarching framework for the initiatives to come together as a coherent whole and facilitate belonging at Leeds. This presentation really challenged my personal view of decolonising as an isolated intervention within the growing list of university initiatives aimed at increasing access and widening participation.

Another presentation that engaged decolonising is Eleanor Cope and Ceilan Hunter-Green’s snapshot titled ‘Decolonisation of Reading Lists at Leeds: Findings and the Future’. Two librarians in the University, who co-supervised Esta in her research, Eleanor and Celian approach decolonising from a citation perspective. Their presentation gave us a glimpse of what the sequel to Esta’s project may look like- my guess is that we may be looking at a more automatic approach to decolonising and reading lists!

I may not be far off. Indeed, Esta’s project was inspired by work carried out at Imperial College London, where a novel computational method was developed to analyse the reading list (568 articles, to be specific) of a Master’s programme in Public Health over two academic years (2017–18 and 2019–20). The outcome was an uncommon (but welcomed) quantitative evidence to inform the qualitative-driven debate on decolonising the curriculum.

The decolonising ‘movement’ has left an indelible impression on universities across the UK, but there is a danger that it may become politicised and appropriated to an adversarial ‘for and against’ movement. Indeed, with the Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall Movements, we have seen how the media has divided public opinion over issues of race and Britain’s colonial past. Even within academia, the call to decolonise the curriculum remains controversial, and not particularly popular. Decolonising activities have even been reduced to, ‘a campaign to promote ethnic minority thinkers in place of ‘male, pale and stale’ academics’. While a lot still needs to be done to clarify what decolonisation entails, this year’s Student Education Conference provided an important platform to raise some awareness on the significance of decolonising the curriculum and allowed students to share resources on practical ways to achieve this end.