Authors: Shriya Lakshman ( English and History, 3rd year) and Roxane Lavanchy( MA International
Decolonise Sussex: aims and origins
Decolonise Sussex is a student-led campaign dedicated to challenging the legacies of racism, imperialism and colonialism within all spheres of the university, both inside and outside the classroom. We aim to raise awareness and encourage dialogues about structural inequalities and to lobby the university to be actively dismantling them, rather than perpetuating them. The campaign was started a few years ago by students wanting to campaign for more racial equality on campus. It took roots in the ‘I Too Am Sussex’ society which is a space that allows students from ethnic minority communities and backgrounds to explore their identity and share their lived experiences. An important issue raised at the society was that the curriculum being studied inside the classroom rarely, if ever, reflected these identities and backgrounds. This provoked students to establish a body purely dedicated to the academic side of university and in particular curriculum review and change- a change to enable inclusion of more people of colour and non- Western backgrounds to be represented on the curriculum as well as address issues such as racism, discrimination and general ignorance about different student backgrounds on campus. It moreover benefitted from the support of Savannah Sevenzo, the 2016/2017 Students’ Union undergraduate education officer and who was one of several students campaigning for more BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) voices on the curriculum.
Our campaign is also part of a wider movement, notably manifested in the Rhodes Must Fall campaigns in Oxford and Cape Town, aiming to encourage dialogue about the reality of institutional racism in education and bringing about change in curriculums and teaching methods.
We are now one of several student campaigns recognised and supported by the SU, which is led by a committed group of about fifteen students from a variety of courses, years and backgrounds.
Decolonising the curriculum, decolonising the university, decolonising Sussex: what’s all the fuss about?
‘Decolonise’ or decolonial thinking can be understood as a way of thinking that identifies colonialism, empire and racism as crucial shaping forces of the contemporary world when their role has tended to be systematically neglected or downplayed. While most of us would never called ourselves ‘racist’ and while many share the assumption that we live in a post-racial Britain, racial inequalities persist at all levels of our society, including in institutions such as the university. Statistics show that hate crime has been on the rise over the last few years.
According to the Home Office, 94,098 cases hate crimes were recorded in England and Wales in 2017/18, which is an increase of 17% compared to the previous year. 71,251 (76%) were race hate crimes. Whilst the increase is in part attributed to improvements in police recording, the Home Office stresses there has been spikes in hate crime following particular events such as the 2016 EU referendum and 2017 terrorists attacks. Moreover, whilst many of us are aware of the issues surrounding race and the US, few are aware the alarming statistics regarding the criminal justice system here. For example, over half of the young people held in prisons in England and Wales are from black and minority ethnic background.
Meanwhile, raised into the ideology of colour blindness, we are encouraged to stay blind to the way racism continues to structure our society in 2019 and to avoid bringing racism to the table. To decolonise, starts with rejecting these assumptions and engaging with the fact that our society has been marked by a long colonial history and the structural inequalities resulting from it.
But why should we decolonise the university in particular? Decolonial movements have been bringing attention to the role and complicity of European/Western academia, institutionalised in the project of the university, in reproducing global colonial hegemonies, racial bias and unequal power relations. Decolonising education or decolonising the curriculum is about recognising that knowledge and knowledge production are marked by unequal power relations. It brings attention to the fact whiteness remains the norm in academia both in curriculums, teaching methods and in terms of staff representation and acknowledges the ways in which, while universities are commonly viewed as progressive, inclusive, forward-thinking institutions, racism continues to structure them and the lives of students.
Research indeed systematically highlights the link between race and achievement and participation in higher education. The 2018 Equality in higher education statistical report shows that BAME students do not go to university in the same numbers, attain lower grades when they go and are more likely to drop out, even though they enter university on the same requirements than their white peers.
Sussex is no exception. Our university prides itself on being this diverse, multicultural forward-thinking and inclusive institution. However, this image many of us were sold at open days is closer to utopia than reality. Whilst some schools and departments – Global Studies in the vanguard – have made it a priority to review their curriculum and engage with legacy of racism in their disciplines, racial inequality continues to shape our institution and the experience of BAME students on campus. Whilst students get accepted into Sussex on the same grade requirements, there is a significant disparity between the achievements of white and BAME students. This disparity, better known as the BAME attainment gap, is the gap between the likelihood of white home students and home students from BAME backgrounds getting a 1st or a 2:1 degree classification.
The graph below shows the steep and alarming rise in the attainment gap from being just 3.8% in the 2014-2015 academic year to nearly three times that in the academic year 2017/2018 at 14.1%.
There is also a further breakdown of this gap as experienced across the different schools of study at Sussex which shows that only the School of Psychology has overcome the attainment gap while others have failed to do so, with the School of Life Sciences being the least successful in bridging the gap.
Causes identified for the attainment gap by Universities UK(UUK) and the National Union of Students(NUS)# Closing the Gap 2019 include but are not limited to
- Institutional Culture
- Ethnic Diversity among role models and staff
- Inclusive curriculum content, design and delivery
- Sense of belonging
- Information, advice and guidance
- Financial considerations
Decolonising the university is thus essential to tackle racial inequalities on campus. In the classroom, decolonising the university involves calling for better representation of “non-Western” thinkers and scholars of minority background and taking issue with fact that the experiences, concerns achievements of straight elite white men have been granted a disproportionate prominence in academic disciplines. Decolonising the curriculum does not mean calling for their removal from course reading lists or to simply diversify them. It is not about silencing certain voices and increasingly platforming others on the basis of colour. It is not about erasing or changing the past but about critically thinking about it and about how it affects the present. It is an exhortation to engage in a process of critical thinking and a call for greater historical awareness of the context in which academic knowledge is produced and gains its authority. It involves asking questions such as why are particular authors considered to be the ultimate authority for their field? How did their perspective about world come to be presented as universal? Within which context and power structures did canonical texts gain their authority? Who or what is excluded from our curriculum? What are the consequences of these exclusions? This process of decolonising curriculum is essential to ensure we receive and engage in an education that enables critical thinking and self-understanding instead of blindly reproducing unequal power relations. One way we, as a campaign, aim to encourage this process is by bringing staff and students together in during school forums as well as by encouraging systematic curriculum reviews.
Decolonising the university however goes beyond just the curriculum as racial inequalities on campus are not only manifested in the attainment gap. Research suggests that significant numbers of ethnic minority background students are subject to racial harassment at university thus significantly affecting their student experience. Ethnic minority university staff are also more likely to report experiences of harassment than their white peers. Our organising meetings have enabled us to hear the varied negative experiences students of students of colour at Sussex. Decolonising the university therefore entails that these experiences are heard and addressed. It involves holding the university accountable, lobbying for improved reporting procedures and support support services as well as raising awareness among the whole student body. It is about ensuring that tackling racism is everyone’s issue, not just the concern of people of colour or a working group on the margin of the university.
What we do, and how other students can get involved
Our campaign is formed of a vibrant and diverse group of students wanting to tackle structural inequalities in all spheres of the university. We are thus working on a variety of projects and ideas to achieve our aim to decolonise Sussex and there many ways students can get involved. We are an inclusive group who always welcomes new ideas and no prior knowledge of the movement is required to join. This term, our organising meetings will take place weekly on Mondays, 6-8pm. At meetings everyone initially gathers together as a whole to discuss any progress and development undergone over the course of the week and if there are new ideas or suggestions to the campaign as a whole. After this, we usually split up to work on the different projects, events and initiatives we are planning.
We were very active last year especially during Black History Month when we co-hosted sold-out events, such as a talk by S. I Martin on the Black History of Brighton and a panel discussion about Women of Colour in Publishing. Other events that were organised during the month include the Blackness and Identity workshop with Kareem Parkins-Brown, a talk on Black feminism with Kelechi Okafor and an Introduction to the first ever Black Studies degree in the UK at Birmingham City University, just to name a few. In addition, we co-hosted a coffee morning on campus in collaboration with the Dog-walking society and had the opportunity to host a two-hour guest slot on URF which both allowed us to raise awareness of our work.
In the spring term we went on to achieve several other goals for our campaign including the creation and facilitation of a workshop which addressed the concept of privilege and how to be a better ally and use one’s privilege for the betterment of all communities. We also conducted several forums including at the Schools of English, Global Studies, and Media Film and Music which allowed a chance for students and tutors to interact in an informal setting and address decolonial issues at the heart of their respective curricula. To cap the year off, we were nominated for and won the Outstanding Campaign of the Year Award at the Students Union Awards night and through the efforts of the 2018/2019 Undergraduate Education Officer at the students union Ella Asheri, launched a ‘Co-producing the Curriculum’ project which brought together a diverse group of students, module convenors and associate tutors to revise modules from the Schools of Global Studies and English . The pilot was supported by a group of key academics from the University and used an anti-racist, feminist framework to update teaching style and course content for contemporary times. Chris Harding, the now Undergraduate Education Officer for 2019-20, who will be continuing the work started by Ella, said: “The Co-producing the Curriculum project is so important because it allows students and teachers to work together to create courses which work for all. The project helps forge a closer academic community in which students are put at the centre and issues such as the BAME attainment gap and equality and diversity are tackled.”
We have a lot more in store for the new academic term. We will be continuing ongoing conversations with the university management, professors and students by organising forums discussing the curriculum and how it can be better diversified, as well as inclusive pedagogy and BAME student experiences. We will also be working closely with the SU and the university’s BAME attainment gap working group to collect feedback and testimonies from BAME students about their curriculum and their wider experience at Sussex.
We will also be organising events and creating resources to raise awareness and encourage reflection about the impact of race, colonialism and imperialism in shaping our university and society as whole. To this end, we had a film screening and discussion of the movie ‘US’ written and directed by Jordan Peele over freshers week, and a special Black History Month bingo pop-up in library square which aims to address issues faced by black students inside as well as outside of campus community. We are launching a new radio show with URF titled ‘Decolonoise’ which will air every two weeks on Tuesdays from 3pm-4pm, starting 15th October, through which we aim to communicate with the campus community as well as engage in fruitful discussions about the importance of decolonising with members of our campaign as well as guest participants from other spheres of the university including lecturers, society heads, etc.
We are looking forward to continuing our blog, featuring a range of content from essays, reviews of events that are organised by or are important to the campaign, student testimonials, etc. It will also function as a platform to gather and signpost existing work around decolonising the university.
We’re very keen on welcoming additional contributors and platforming the work of Sussex students work whether that is as a one-off post or recurring ones. We will moreover be working to improve support and reporting mechanisms or experiences of hate crime and discrimination by creating a hate crime guide, listing relevant supporting bodies and services. To know more and/or get involved, do follow us on our social media.
Facebook: Decolonise Sussex
SU website: www.sussexstudent.com/campaigns