This blog was kindly contributed by Mia Liyanage, the author of our HEPI Debate Paper 23, Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities. Mia is a decolonisation advocate and the former Co-Chair of Common Ground Oxford, a student movement challenging racism, classism and the legacy of colonialism in both the University and the city of Oxford. She is currently Race Equality Charter Officer at Goldsmiths, University of London and an Associate Researcher at Advance HE.
We speak frequently of 2020-21 as a year of tumult. A deadly virus and a global reckoning on the equally destructive force of structural racism have undoubtedly turned the higher education sector – as well as our own lives – on its head. But to what extent has the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement really transformed the way we talk about, think about and act in response to racism and the legacy of colonialism in our universities?
A year ago my report, ‘Miseducation: decolonising curricula, culture and pedagogy in UK universities’ was released into an uncertain context. On the one hand, general policy talk was dwarfed by the urgent need to analyse the pandemic’s impact on higher education. On the other hand, I had attended the first Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford protest in five years only a month before. The streets of that university were once again ringing with the impact of its past. Something felt different about the landscape in which ‘Miseducation’ was published.
As a result of this charged context, I am sure this report has had a bigger impact than I could have hoped. Since its publication, universities across the UK have taken it on as a resource for their decolonising work. In some cases, it has even kickstarted these discussions. I now regularly speak at institutions about its findings. In lectures to staff and students I try to use the report’s deliberate focus on lived experience to create meaningful spaces for empathy-building. Connecting colleagues with the voices behind the sector’s decolonising movement has really helped to humanise them and the cause they are fighting for. Realistically, buy-in for anti-racist action is hard to achieve within groups unaffected by the issues at hand. One of ‘Miseducation’s most important contributions is its ability to give white colleagues an insight into the personal and intellectual costs of a colonised education.
Meanwhile, decolonial advocates from academia to activism have found a home for their experiences in higher education policy discourse for the first time. People have told me that, in large or small ways, ‘Miseducation’ made them feel less alone in an environment designed to divide. The report’s unapologetic platforming of lived experience not only lends decolonisation advocates a voice, it has helped to validate their methods. In equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and widening participation we are called upon to ‘prove’ the worth in our work, almost always through quantitative data. Focus groups and interviews often carry less weight than numbers which is a symptom of the system we operate in. However, this situation is not neutral as many in our institutions claim. Receptiveness to statistics (which, famously, can have biases of their own) but not to testimony from the very people racism affects is itself a symptom of institutional racism. This is a point my colleagues and I find ourselves making repeatedly. ‘Miseducation’ contributed to a growing set of literature that allows people of colour to speak out on their own terms. One year on, this methodology has yet to acquire the gravity I think it deserves.
The landscape of my own career has altered drastically. ‘Miseducation’ has led to freelance work with Advance HE – and eventually – to doing anti-racist work at Goldsmiths, University of London full-time nine months after graduating from my Master’s degree. The path from activist to institutional anti-racist work, one I had never even considered, was opened to me through the events of the past year. I am not alone. Colleagues who have been working in this field for decades tell me that this year, projects that once fell on deaf ears have been invested in for the first time: roles have been created where there were none; and funding has appeared from a kitty institutions long protested was empty. But while this seems like cause for celebration, the way it feels is far uglier. Alongside the day-to-day labour, those of us doing anti-racist work in this sector often have to ask ourselves whether our institution’s allyship is performative or genuine and whether a given project is diluting our values. Since last May, we have had to ask a new question: did I only get this opportunity because a Black man was murdered?
I cannot begin to answer that question, but my counterparts and I certainly recognise that recent progress has not erased the sector’s problem with race. Nevertheless, mid-way through 2021, anti-racist practitioners in our institutions have a visibility problem – and it is no wonder, given the lack of attention they have historically been paid by senior management teams. As a student, I was heavily involved in decolonising, anti-racist and anti-classist work. For a year, I was Co-Chair of the most active group on campus at that time. Yet in my four years at Oxford, I never once crossed paths with the University’s equality, diversity and inclusion team. As little as a year ago, I was unaware that EDI even existed. Now knowing so many colleagues both within and outside of EDI who are so committed to this work, I know many would have been glad to connect with students who were so invested in these issues. Nevertheless, those ships passed in the night, and in that missed opportunity is the indicator of a much larger trend in the sector – and one ‘Miseducation’ attempted to buck.
The vision behind this report was one of productive, nuanced discussion between groups rarely afforded the opportunity to hear each other out in a neutral space. By interviewing activists, academics and university leaders separately and presenting their voices together, I was trying to encourage empathy. In my work today, I am often asked ‘is this heightened interest in decolonising our universities a flash in the pan? Will anti-racism stay a buzzword, or become a framework?’ My answer is always the same: those of us committed to anti-racist transformation will still be here, doing the work, just as we were before 2020. I can only hope that our sector will choose to join us.