Why the Universities Minister is wrong about decolonisation

Universities Minister Sam Gyimah
The new Universities Minister Sam Gyimah has weighed in on the decolonisation agenda. But are his comments helpful?

In his recent comments on the decolonisation campaign, the Universities Minister Sam Gyimah suggested that universities were phasing out’ elements of the curriculum because they are ‘unpopular’ or ‘unfashionable’ with students. In the context of the decolonisation campaign at SOAS, this is simply untrue.

Rather, the emphasis is on expanding and re-balancing the curriculum to reflect knowledge that is available about the world beyond the ‘West’, rooted in academic expertise, debate and careful consideration. This also gives students access to much more up-to-date research in many areas. This is not a fashion statement or a popularity contest, but an absolute necessity for any serious academic institution seeking to contribute to global debates. Countries like Britain have for too long known too little (or ignored what was known) about what goes on in the wider world – it can no longer afford this complacent attitude.

Clearly, others in public life agree. The recent refresh of the 1970s series ‘Civilisation’ (singular, and meaning the West) to become ‘Civilisations’ (plural, to go beyond the West) speaks to the clear demand that has been created in this generation for a less narrow and more dialogic understanding of global affairs.

We also do understand the need for diversity in other spheres to make them more representative as well as more welcoming – if the Cabinet was all-male, for example, we might criticise this as representing sexist bias, and sending a signal to those not represented that they did not matter or did not belong. Why would today’s students, with very much increased participation from women and BME backgrounds, not ask the same question? Whilst ‘visual’ diversity and intellectual diversity are not the same thing, they can certainly help each other.

Finally, we would say that universities weren’t doing their jobs if the research simply churned out the same ideas and thinking year after year – yet when we try to shake up the teaching to make it less parochial and inward-looking it seems to cause consternation.  If we are serious about the ‘age of the student’ presented by the Minister, and we think that universities can help take us into the future, decolonising our ways of thinking and teaching are a necessary first step.

Dr Meera Sabaratnam is a Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS University of London and a member of the SOAS Decolonising the Curriculum Committee.

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