Why we are demanding our university decolonise the curriculum

Adassa Taylor-Scott

In light of Black History Month last month and the recent events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, the individual – and more importantly collective – responsibility to challenge all forms of systematic prejudice should be recognised, specifically within higher education facilities. As young BAME students at the University of Sheffield, we have written a letter, (which is yet to be responded to) regarding the issues that need to be urgently addressed by the department of social sciences at the University of Sheffield, but also across the UK. These issues are not unique to our university.

They are systematically harming the learning and scholarship of BAME students within the department, putting them at a disadvantage to their white peers. As laid out in a race inequality report published by the university, as of 2018 Sheffield has an 8.5% attainment gap with BAME students less likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 in their final degree outcome than white students. In conjunction with this shocking reality, BAME applicants are less likely to be offered places at Russell Group universities despite having A-Levels equivalent to their white counterparts.

Despite the fact that these issues go further than the walls of our university, as a prestigious higher education facility with a world leading social sciences department, we feel there is a duty as a department to reconsider the failure of the institution to adequately address diverse thought in teaching and the additional responsibility to have diverse teachers and lectures within the institution. The Impact of Omission survey in June 2020 is an excellent demonstration of these issues, and how they affect students. There is an urgency to commit to race equality action plans more broadly and to better understand the impact of microaggressions and white privilege.

There is also a need to address the lack of diversity in the teaching department at the University of Sheffield, where only 9.7% of staff from the UK are from a BAME background. There evidently needs to be a more conscious effort to hire lecturers of BAME backgrounds across the social science department. Although efforts outlined by Sheffield’s Race and Equality Action plan, many of which were implemented in 2019 and are considered ongoing, there is little evidence to suggest that these objectives have been fulfilled. A crucial example of this being the supposed commitment to an “inclusive curriculum” that reflects the students; there is no mention of plans to decolonise the curriculum. The content of what students are taught can be seen to be taught from a western, imperialist view. The department should make a greater attempt to give a more holistic understanding of knowledge.

Some of the shared experiences highlighted by students across the department of social sciences were consequential, regarding a module entitled ‘Whiteness, Power and Privilege’ – betraying a sense of insensitivity when conveying this module. The module demonstrated, on many occasions, a level of ignorance and a general disregard for the opinions and experiences of BAME students whose voices are already in a minority and further remained so during the course. And it also highlighted the necessity for a deeper understanding of these themes and how they manifest in higher education. In light of recent global events, it is now more important than ever to convey this message and create a safe environment for students of an ethnic minority background to learn and share their experiences.

Recent debates regarding Black history and the teaching of it in schools have highlighted the lack of commitment from MPs and the government to commit to decolonising the curriculum. Comments made by Tory minister Kemi Badenoch on the illegality of teaching white privilege or critical race theory demonstrate the ongoing struggle faced by BAME students, who’s experiences are constantly marginalised within higher education. There are many given opportunities to include the works of Black academics throughout the year, not just during Black history month. And this opportunity has been present on many occasions. Without an inclusive education and understanding of society, higher education will continue to limit the experiences of BAME students.

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