From the colonial roots of the rise of higher educational institutes to the banking style teaching methods that defer authority to a highly gate-kept few and the propaganda laden curriculums, universities have long been one branch of a multi-institutional oppressive system. However, movements such as Black Lives Matter have been raising public awareness of institutional racism since inspiring international support for the protests following the 2014 murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and later protests and riots following the murder of George Floyd six years later. Such conversations have encouraged higher educational institutes, educators, and students to call for an effort to decolonise these spaces, as seen by the international movement started by #RhodesMustFall that called for the removal of statues celebrating imperialist figures from university campuses and the commitment of a fifth of UK universities to decolonising their curriculum (Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire, 2018). Despite positive intentions, such a task will pose a gargantuan challenge – one that may be as seemingly oxymoronic as a call to say, decolonise the monarchy due to the continuing role of higher educational institutes as a key pillar in upholding colonialism. A call to decolonise universities must be a call to decolonise the intention and impact of these institutes, not merely their curriculums, which may ultimately pose a threat to a key purpose of such institutes to the ruling class, creating a global hierarchy in education.
One fundamental difficulty in decolonising higher education is that most such institutes have colonial roots to thank for their past and present success; colonialism has and continues to benefit associated universities and colleges,and until this incentive is removed, there will always be significant difficulty in decolonising these spaces. Worldwide, the top 24 ranked universities all hail from superpowers with extensive colonial histories or currently continuing colonialist action; the UK, the USA, and two universities from China (Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022).
Amongst some of the most prestigious higher educational institutes are the Ivy League institutes of America, of which seven out of eight were originally colonial colleges. Interestingly, of the Ivy League institutes not represented amongst these top ranks, two out of three are non-colonial and public institutes. The colonial root of such higher educational institutes is undeniable; large swathes of these internationally respected universities were founded during colonial rule, through the church’s power – a key benefactor and purveyor of colonialism, and via funds accrued through colonial exploitation. In the UK, three-quarters of top 20 ranking universities have even recognised and begun confronting this history through public reviews, such as Imperial College commissioning a group to examine the college’s history and legacy in June 2020, Oxford’s “St John’s and the Colonial Past” research project (Whyte, 2019), and Cambridge launching a two-year academic study into the institutions’ contributions to and profiting from slavery and other violence during the colonial era.
This is not to argue that merely having a colonial history is favoured in a higher educational institute, but that as these institutes operate under capitalism, it is favourable to maintain relationships with those in power; universities rely on both public and private funding, networks of alumni and working relationships with political figures as well as private companies. As a result, higher educational institutes are unable to effectively decolonise until they reach financial freedom that allows them to challenge their own sponsors’ colonial stances and actions. Nine out of 24 Russel Group universities maintain deals and investments with arms dealers in the multi-million (Huffington Post, “Revealed: The Nine Elite UK Universities That Still Have Links with Arms Dealers,” 2021). In the meantime, the current global educational landscape is one wherein colonial institutes utilise the spoils of colonialism to maintain a hierarchical system of education that proclaims the colonial ideology, philosophy, and standpoints they teach as superior and objective.
This authority over knowledge, an inherent characteristic of higher educational institutes, also poses a challenge to decolonising such spaces. The term “banking style education” was by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire in his 1970 book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and refers to the authoritarian method by which a “teacher”, who is given authority over knowledge and teaching, bestows this knowledge unto the ignorant “student”, whose role is to be an open receptacle in which knowledge is “banked”. Such a teaching method is favoured amongst the majority of higher educational institutes, which take this method to an extreme in the form of lectures, a format which discourages discussion and student-led learning. Whilst this may not pose an issue when it comes to teaching a list of scientific facts, Freire identified this teaching method as that of the oppressor for the reasoning that it instils an unquestionable authority of knowledge on the teacher and assumes ignorance of the student, such that a hierarchy and power imbalance is created between the two. In the context that the top institutes are primarily colonial and white, and facts such as that approximately 82% of academic staff in higher education (in the UK) are white (Independent, “Just 1% of UK professors are Black, new figures reveal”, 2022), it becomes insidious that such a teaching method is favoured. The picture is clear; across the globe, minorities that are still working on repairing the long-term damages caused by colonialism watch on as their colonisers declare themselves the authority on knowledge, morality, and progress, with the wealth stolen from their peoples and lands.
Freire suggested a more power balanced approach, with “student-teachers” and “teacher-students” who decided on curriculums and explored topics collaboratively, with an understanding that each is benefited by the other. Evening the power imbalance between teachers and students would be one step to decolonising higher education as this would allow different perspectives a chance to be equally considered, rather than the colonial perspective simply being taught as fact. However, this teaching style may pose problems for higher educational institutes as curriculums and teaching programmes typically require accreditation and official recognition to a set of prewritten standards. Such standards are dictated by those in power, and as such, perspectives that may be damaging to white supremacy or colonialism are often buried; for example, in early June of 2021, Gov Kim Reynolds of Iowa signed a bill restricting what they deemed divisive teachings regarding sexism and racism in public universities.
Providing a Platform for Change
The issue lies in a predominantly white western voice being given the platform of higher education, where topics are discussed and taught from a relatively narrow and one-sided point of view and experience. This becomes especially problematic and even harmful when serious issues like the Black Lives Matter movement discussing the struggles of Black lives are taught by white professors, who are able to, at best, discuss such experiences from an analytical outsider perspective.
While not necessarily intentional, these individuals fail to identify and acknowledge their position of privilege in having the power and authority to speak for those who continue to face oppression from the very system these professors benefit from.
In attempting to educate students on such topics, the professor assumes responsibility for preparing a syllabus of content to be taught, imparting their judgement reinforced through their position and prior academic engagements despite limited experience and insight. These topics are often discussed from a position of sympathy, with little real-world understanding or experience to ground these academics in the discourse they engage in. The motivation lies instead in securing for oneself a topical and enduring career that can keep up with the competitive demands of a capitalist economy. This not only invalidates and overshadows the very real and harrowing experiences of those facing such social oppression but simultaneously shapes the perceived reality of these situations by drawing focus exclusively to the discussion, which benefits the academic, who in the UK is predominantly white.
In delivering a white analysis and interpretation of such issues as formal education, these already scarce opportunities are robbed from marginalised groups who continue fighting to be heard.
The exploitative nature of British higher education becomes clearer still when considering the role of an international student within its system. International students are an ever-growing group bringing significant yearly contributions to the UK’s economy.
A 2021 London Economics study into the costs and benefits of international higher education students concluded that the 2018/19 group of first-year international students, standing at 272,920 strong, contributed a net economic benefit of £25.9 billion to the UK economy, marking a significant increase of 19% from the 2015/16 academic year (London Economics “The costs and benefits of international higher education students to the UK economy”, 2021).
When considering the tuition fees alone, international students in the UK pay an average of £12,000 a year for a 3-year undergraduate course, with most degrees ranging from £10-20,000, compared to the £9,250 charged to UK students.
They are undoubtedly a valuable commodity to the UK’s economy, making up 20% of all higher education students in the country and experiencing rapid annual growth. With the growing influx of international students, the adverse impacts of delivering globally accredited higher education through a banking style system are exacerbated. This act of “banking”, or simply depositing information on international students through primarily lecture-style delivery,successfully indoctrinates these highly impressionable and mobile groups with western ideologies and ways of seeing, which have become normalised, the deep colonial roots of which often go overlooked.
This reflects an evolution of early British colonial practices in spreading western produced knowledge and science through the “Age of Discovery” and beyond when European nations started traversing and conquering the world. In a highly globalised and interconnected modern world, global intellectual minds are instead attracted to these western colonial nations with the promise of social mobility. This indoctrination process is replicated, with higher education institutions playing a pivotal role in providing a platform.
While decolonisation is taught and discussed as a theory in British higher education, it is yet to be put into good practice. In many ways, these institutions still benefit from perpetuating colonial ideals and maintaining a hierarchy within education, both in the body of academics and students. Decolonisation is not in the interest of higher educational institutes; this is the biggest barrier to effectively teaching decolonisation in these spaces. An essentialstep in decolonising British higher education involves removing the dominant white western world view from discourse and discussion concerning the often-marginalised global communities. These platforms and opportunities to lead such discussions should be opened and primarily available to individuals who have greater insight through lived experiences and are driven by the desire for systematic change above all else. In simple terms, this acts to empower the oppressed, allowing real lived experiences to be discussed and discourse to be spearheaded towards resolution.
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