28 October 2022

Dr Kathy-Ann Fletcher: What do we mean by 'decolonising the curriculum' and why is it important?

Abertay lecturer offers an insight into the University's approach to the decolonisation agenda

Dr Kathy-Ann Fletcher is a Lecturer in Marketing at Abertay University and is now within the AbLE Academy leading on our institutional approach to embedding equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the curriculum. We spoke with her recently to shed some light on decolonisation and how that will be approached at Abertay.

What is meant by the term ‘decolonising the curriculum’?

Decolonisation is a process that addresses the cultural, economic and socio-political consequences of colonialism. It acknowledges the impact of colonisation on our institutional origin stories and our positioning within the modern world.

In a university setting, decolonisation involves reviewing teaching and learning practices through a critical lens to involve staff and students to reshape the relationship we have with the disciplines in our portfolio and their originators. This process supports giving voice to marginalised peoples whose contributions would have been erased in shaping the disciplines as we now know them. Consequently, decolonising the curriculum is about expanding the educational opportunities and experiences of all students within the university sector in a manner that prioritises truth and justice in relation to the harms caused by colonisation.

What exactly is colonisation?

Colonisation was a process of appropriating control of a space or people of a country or region for the benefit of the economy or society of the colonising country. Within the context of the so-called ‘New World’ and what we would largely refer to as the ‘Global South’, European colonisation began in the 15th century. In some places, colonisation is still a reality today. This period served as one of the original eras of globalisation by exploiting the land and resources as well as the forced labour of the enslaved people within the colonised territories.

In the UK, there is not a consistent practice of acknowledging the benefit of transatlantic slavery to cities outside of Liverpool, Bristol and London. However, decolonisation requires these links to be acknowledged to support the process of facing up to the consequences of colonialism. For example, recently I learnt about Dundee’s links with colonialism in the Americas through the Breaking the Chains Walking Trail. While I was more aware of Dundee’s colonial past in relation to the jute trade with Sout East Asia, it was enlightening to learn that Dundee linen was used to clothe a large majority of the enslaved people in the British colonies in the Caribbean. The profits from both the jute trade and the transatlantic slave trade were then part of the funding that supported the institutions that are now the two universities in Dundee.

This agenda has become more prominent in the higher education sector in recent years. Why do you think that is?

There have been conversations around decolonisation for many years. However, it has gained momentum following student-led movements such as ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and the 2020 edition of Black Lives Matter. These movements then demanded a more strategic approach to confronting the inequalities in society that are replicated in university curricula.

I also think that universities are finally understanding the importance of empowering students who are passionate about equality and diversity. Universities need to prepare students for the increasingly global world whether they stay in Dundee, Scotland or go farther afield.

Is this just universities giving into the ‘woke agenda’?

Absolutely not. The term ‘woke’ has been misappropriated by mainstream media and political pundits who have polluted its true essence and meaning. A more accurate consideration of woke is about the state of social awareness of injustices within socio-political systems. However, we are more likely to see it used by mainstream pundits to smear people and organisations who have a genuine interest in social justice.

Similarly, the word ‘decolonisation’ is also misunderstood. It is about repairing relationships between the historically colonised and the colonising nations through a process of justice for what was stolen through colonisation.

What challenges do you foresee in making progress?

Universities are under increasing pressure through various sector-wide challenges such as public funding cuts and greater reporting procedures. Decolonisation could then easily become an intimidating prospect for academic, professional and support staff whose workloads are already under tremendous strain. This combined with the unfair criticisms that such work is about giving into the ‘woke agenda’ can test institutions’ stated priorities of decolonisation and embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in the curriculum. Importantly, to combat these challenges, in the Abertay context our collaborative approach is designed to inspire engagement and decolonisation practice at all levels in a manner that outlasts the existence of a secondment dedicated specifically to this type of work.

What is being done at Abertay?

Abertay’s work to embed equality, diversity and inclusion within the curriculum is at an early stage. However, we have students and staff across the institution doing great work within this area across the range of disciplines in our portfolio. The institutional work will involve a collaborative approach (with staff and students) to auditing teaching and learning practice at programme level and shaping the way forward. I am glad that within this work Abertay is not starting from level zero, so we will build on our areas of good practice, while addressing holistically those places we identify for improvement.

I am excited to begin the process with our first collaborative session to build our institutional roadmap. This will be held during Abertay’s second annual Diversity Fest next month and is open to both students and staff. Diversity Fest is a programme of free events that will bring students and staff together to celebrate the diversity within our community as well as ignite broader conversations about making Abertay more inclusive.

Abertay’s growing commitment to EDI is evidenced by the achievement of the Race Equality and Athena Swan Charter Marks, which are nationally recognised commendations that acknowledge the work to advance racial and gender equality respectively. Furthermore, members of our community have contributed to various national projects in this area including QAA Scotland's Decolonising the Curriculum work and AdvanceHE's Creating an Anti-Racist Curriculum.

There’s a lot of work to do, which will require action at all levels of the University, but I know that we as a community are determined to make progress.

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