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Blaming decolonisation for limiting free speech is a red herring

  • 25 March 2021
  • By Sylvie Lomer, Parise Carmichael-Murphy & Jenna Mittelmeier

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Sylvie Lomer, Parise Carmichael-Murphy and Dr Jenna Mittelmeier from the University of Manchester in response to a blog posted on Decolonisation by Professor Doug Stokes, University of Exeter, which you can read here. You can find Sylvie, Parise and Jenna on twitter @SE_Lomer, @JLMittelmeier and @Parise_CM.

We hope you continue the discussion on Twitter or in our comments section below!

A recent HEPI blog written by Professor Doug Stokes argues that the decolonisation movement in higher education is ‘illiberal and authoritarian’, describing recent comments from the Minister of State for Universities that decolonisation is ‘censoring history’ as ‘a defence of key academic values’. While we certainly respect the author’s right to freely express their opinions, we believe the blog perpetuates several fundamental misunderstandings about curriculum decolonisation that should be addressed.  

The post first argues against what is viewed as the ‘moral impetus’ of the decolonisation movement: that higher education institutions are claimed to be ‘endemically racist’. The author further argues that claims about British universities as sites of colonialism and racism are ‘inaccurate’, with limited recognition of how universities themselves have acknowledged that their ‘wealth was derived, in part, from slavery’.

As evidence, the post refers to the ‘small difference’ between percentages of ‘BAME’ professors and white professors and increasingly diverse student bodies. However, the ‘BAME’ acronym merges experience across communities, which are more sharply unequal when disaggregated. For instance, of the 19,000 employed professors in the UK, just 400 are identified as ‘BAME’, but this further disguises that in 2019, there were only 25 Black women professors in the UK.

Other provided evidence insinuates that the presence of students categorised as BAME in higher education is indicative of less racist environments, seemingly equating ‘presence’ with ‘positive experience’. Yet there is ample evidence that higher education staff and students categorised as BAME are often marginalised and excluded. This argument also ignores a ‘persistent attainment gap’, with Black students less likely to receive ‘good’ degrees at 96 out of 97 universities, with some gaps over 20%, which holds even when controlling for domicile, class, and other data. Students and staff have also persistently shared racialised experiences in UK higher education and it is remiss to ignore their voices.

Yet, despite these misconceptions, decolonisation should not be used as a metaphor for anti-racism, inclusion, or diversification, although this blog seems to conflate these terms. Similarly, diversification is not decolonisation, as succinctly argued by Nihan Albayrak: ‘diversity reinforces the existing unjust system, decolonisation challenges it’.

What decolonisation of the curriculum doesrequire of higher education is to recognise and address existing hegemonic knowledge and power imbalances that underpin our teaching and institutional structures. The author has previously argued that the decolonisation movement leads to ‘cherry picking of facts and targets’. We argue that decoloniality means absolutely the opposite by urging scholars to more fully evaluate and disentangle existing assumptions and biases that underpin our knowledges, curricula, and disciplines.

For those in positions of privilege, this means a responsibility to recognise which voices have historically been ignored

Such suggestions are not intended as an intrusion of academic freedom, but rather a plea to deconstruct the existing hegemonic structures that form a foundation for many of our academic fields. Decolonisation is also not an attempt to sideline voices that are ‘white, pale, and stale’, but to challenge the ethnocentricity of the academic canon. If, as Paulo Freire argues, ‘knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention’, part of our role as educators is to re-examine Eurocentric discourses and evaluate whether higher education policy is upheld by assumptions which will not liberate racially and epistemically marginalised communities. For those in positions of privilege, this means a responsibility to recognise which voices have historically been ignored and consciously choosing to reimagine knowledge differently.

Decolonisation also means recognising that members of dominant groups should not be in the position of defining freedom of liberation for others, placing more weight on the need to listen rather than react. We must broaden our definitions of racism beyond just the obvious and explicit forms of bullying, exclusion, and marginalisation which are prevalent in higher education today to also address the covert, subversive, and toxic devaluing of non-Western, European knowledge.

The opposite of ‘decolonial’ isn’t ‘pro-colonial’, as suggested by Stokes – it is simply colonial. A colonial curriculum is one that fails to ask questions like: Where did this knowledge come from? Why is it canon? Whose voices are being ignored? Who benefits from knowledge being constructed in this way? In this sense, most of our disciplines are indeed colonial by failing to interrogate assumed knowledge structures and histories of the disciplines.

In fairness, Stokes’ blog responds to a reactive, superficial version of curriculum decolonisation, which seeks easy wins by reviewing reading lists as an approach to counteracting dominant narratives. Such simplistic approaches represent ‘thin inclusion’, but we must aspire beyond the ‘superficial pluralism’ of the social inclusion agenda. The policing of reading lists for markers of inclusion are a shallow interpretation of the decolonial agenda in the first place.

The issues raised by this blog seem to implicitly refer to a ‘free speech problem’ facing higher education, which has been largely exaggerated by ideologically motivated organisations like Spiked and Quillette. The House of Commons Select Committee inquiry concluded: ‘we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.’ The latest instance has been the ‘cancelling’ of Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum at Leicester University, widely blamed on ‘decolonising the curriculum’. Yet as the Daily Mail has observed, these changes ‘came as one of a number of proposals to cut up to 60 (staff) posts’. This is hardly an academically-motivated curriculum change and such rhetoric has been deployed instead for political purposes to deflect criticism from the systematic marketisation of the sector to the decolonisation agenda.

Decolonisation is not about the limiting of free speech, but in fact calls for a broadened definition of whose voices matter.

Free speech comes down to Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance: ‘We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.’ The only narratives decolonisation does not tolerate are those that marginalise, oppress, or incite violence against others. Decolonisation is not about the limiting of free speech, but in fact calls for a broadened definition of whose voices matter. At its heart, decoloniality embraces, celebrates, and debates diverse knowledges. What is that, if not free speech?


  1. Albert Wright says:

    History is written by the winners not those that lose out.

    History is selective. Absorbed history influences what people think and feel in relation to past events.

    There is another side to everything. Opinions change in terms of what is beneficial and what is harmful in society.

    A fact may be a fact but our responses to it are coloured by our personal experience, personal feelings and thoughts of what is right and wrong.
    Ask an Arsenal and a Tottenham supporter what happened when the two teams last played each other and you are unlikely to get agreement.

    University academics must not prevent the sharing of facts about the past but must comment on the different ways these facts can be presented and the context at he time and since.

  2. “Decolonisation is not about the limiting of free speech, but in fact calls for a broadened definition of whose voices matter. At its heart, decoloniality embraces, celebrates, and debates diverse knowledges. What is that, if not free speech?” I agree.

    In my blog, ‘History: Whose history is it anyway?’ (see:, I argue for more honesty in the way we respond to, manage, and ultimately pass on history from one generation to the next. The more honest history is, the more free our society will eventually become. Our aim should be the creation of a society that is free enough to be strong, and strong enough to be free. It is in this context that I also agree with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said that “Words make worlds.” For the words we choose to use, will certainly determine the kind of world we bequeath to our children – all the more reason for honesty in how we speak or write.

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