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Decolonising Universities and Life

Late September is the period where students flood university halls for freshers. Generally focused mainly on drinking too much and starting their new phase of life. Or rather it should be. Due not only to COVID-19 but also the sloppy A-Level algorithm fiasco, students instead have stress and uncertainty.¹

University used to be a guarantee of a prosperous middle class life. Now it is a tick box exercise for only the possibility of such (particularly if you have opted for something outside of the STEM field). No longer the essential path to a certain standard of living, now it forms one more hurdle to navigate for any sort of basic managerial path at all.

I spent my undergraduate degree at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS), University of London. SOAS is unfairly maligned for its Decolonising SOAS student movement dedicated to introducing more non-European thinkers on the curriculum. Something that should have been a welcome step was portrayed in the media as political correctness gone mad – that all they want to do is reject white men.

It is not any sort of surprise that in education European thinkers are dominant. Even in specialist classes on Africa we would frequently come back to the views of European and American academics rather than African thinkers. And it is frustrating to know that whilst we see value in applying Western thought to other cultures and context, we don’t look to the rest of the world to build up our orthodoxy. The Occident analysis is a side, not a main course.

This is flaw in education is intricately bound with the initial decision to use an A-Level algorithm that tied current students to the ghosts of A-Levels past. The endeavour showed that voices which have always been held up continue to be facilitated. Those at the margins who could contribute something new had to fight to be heard. Even with the change allowing teacher predicted grades to be used, students who were disadvantaged in the first place are likely still faced with issues around admission, housing, finances (especially if they have to delay entry) even if their grades now meet their offer requirements.

Entering higher education as any sort of minority means that sources you use frequently contain errors simply because authors don’t consider something so obvious to you. In older texts Muslims are referred to as Mohammadens because Western European Christians could only see Islam through the lens of Christianity. I have found level of religiousity to be tied to frequency of prayer – you are in the “most religious” group if you pray three or more times a day. It completely ignores that there is a huge difference between a Muslim who does that and a Christian who does. These problems will persist so long as our systems prioritise the same-old same-old.

Cognitive biases are so common, and not just in academia. WhenI write surveys I often conduct cognitive testing to check my assumptions on how someone will read a question actually apply across the board. Once you open your eyes to it you see in even in the little things. Once I accidently kissed a friend’s mother on the mouth because I assumed she would greet me three kisses on the cheek (Sudanese) and she assumed I would give two (Mauritian).

Diversity is not just about race, but class, country, sexuality, field of specialism – the list draws on. Universities instil a confidence in knowledge, but when the knowledge draws only from one type of background you don’t actually get a high quality education. You need to be both challenging and to be challenged. Barriers to allowing different views to mingle, through access to education and texts chosen, is a significant problem.

The most essential thing I have learnt in education is how to handle being wrong and be open to that experience. And I can only find out the numerous things I am wrong about when there are others around – whether in person or through texts to study – who come with different knowledge and perspectives.

 

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Notes

  1. I want to make clear I am not someone who is advocating university education above other forms of continuing learning – technical colleges, apprentinceships, and going straight into work are all important (and I would venture more important) to society and should be funded far better than they are. I am however someone who can’t speak to those experiences, so I am focusing here on academia.