Categories
General Politics Personal Writing Political Debate U.K. Politics

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.

 

*

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.
Categories
Personal Writing

Reflections on my M.A.

Note: I found out in September 2017 that I graduated cum laude with a grade average of 8 (UK equivalent 1st class honours).

On the last day of June my M.A. thesis was handed in. The extra time that is suddenly available to me as I await final results means I have been able to have a period of reflection. In particular I have been looking back on the past year spent here in Maastricht, and how the Masters course I’ve been on (one that focuses on the intersections of politics and society) has helped to shape me into a better, more prepared person that I was before.

The question of why I chose to do a Masters in Politics, and on top of that why I chose to do a Masters abroad comes up a fair amount. There are a large variety of reasons behind both, but they end up boiling down to two simple concepts; 1) I enjoy it so wanted to do more of it, and 2) I think it is important to constantly expose yourself to new experiences in order to be challenged and grow.

Politics fundamentally is about how people relate to power, and is something that I have always loved to delve into. It’s quite funny how much I enjoy it considering that until university I hadn’t formally studied it, and only did so because I made a spur of the moment decision in my last years of high school to put that down in my university guidance session instead of what I had always assumed would be my final choice of either History or English Literature. Still I had helped set up and run the Model United Nations programme in Sudan so it couldn’t be said to be a complete surprise.

As for doing a Masters specifically, I am an academically inclined person so it made sense to build on my B.A. and expand my focus to the societies that I currently live in, rather than just looking to Africa and the Middle East. In particular niche topics are where I excel, and Masters gives you opportunities to tease out these areas far more whilst training you in effective research methods. Indeed research for my thesis has been very rewarding as I made the (slightly masochistic) choice to conduct in-depth qualitative interviews which was incredibly complicated and difficult work, especially the transcriptions, but also enabled me to discover new information that doesn’t really exist out in the academic sphere, rather than just interpreting something that may have been looked over a hundred times.

That being said just because I enjoy the mechanics does not mean I’m not deeply concerned with where we are heading as a planet collectively.

 

The second of the two responses though is something that is far less individualistic as an answer. In general I find that British people have a reputation internationally for rarely leaving the comfort zone of the UK – sometimes even building mini British neighbourhoods in foreign lands – and never properly immersing in other cultures or languages (something quite interesting to note considering the vast legacy of empire). Sometimes this is for reasons out of an individual’s control, but in my case there weren’t these limiting factors so it made sense to step outside the bubble.

Both immigration debates and those around Brexit tend to be framed in an ‘us against the world’ way which really encapsulates this tendency. Even those wanting more co-operation emphasise an idea of British exceptionalism and superiority, rather than just slight cultural difference. Saying that you should participate in the world because you can lead the world doesn’t separate enough from the attitude of empire, nor does it encourage trying to understand others since if you’re at the top of the heap what can they offer to teach you?

Even in my case, being aware enough to have not considered any UK universities for my Masters, I have found that my horizons initially were not as broad as they should have been. When I arrived I was constantly exposed to conversations which didn’t centre UK politics (or Sudanese politics for that matter) since it was generally not the most relevant thing to day-to-day life. This was especially exaggerated by having an international group of friends who also wanted to discuss their own country’s situations.

Had I stayed in the UK it would be highly unlikely that I would have learnt about the similarities and differences of Finland’s left-wing Greens and the right-wing nationalist Finns Party, or how asylum policy and integration are constructed in the Netherlands, or about the interplay of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik and Orbán (and also the interesting detail that their name is a pun meaning both the “better choice” and “most to the right”). All these give you far more insight into politics not only on an international level, but also a national one as you can see general trends and how certain movements have played out in other contexts. I’m a better analyst of politics because of it.

Reflecting on this past year has really reinforced those two initial reasons for leaving in the first place. I have produced an M.A. thesis I put months of hard work into and I am very proud of all of the extra effort I went to to bring in new primary sources in order to produce something I feel is reflective of my ability. I have branched out further, know more about other small nations I would not have studied on my own free time, and I also now have certifications in elementary Dutch.

The next step is one that I’m not sure 100% which direction it will take me in. Yet I know that I will build on this degree, continue to engage with these political issues throughout the coming years, and take the new knowledge I have discovered with me when I do so.